Is The 80/20 Rule Always a Good Thing?

We’ve all heard these diet suggestions in one form or another:

  • You only need to follow your nutrition plan 80% of the time.
  • Cheat days are okay.
  • Follow your diet plan exactly during the week, and give yourself more freedom on the weekends.
  • People who eat healthy all the time, without “cheating,” should be evaluated for Orthoexia Nervosa.
  • Follow the 80/20 rule and you’ll be fine
  • Pick at least four days each week and follow your nutrition plan on those days. Eat whatever you want on the other days.

While this is very good advice for someone who is just beginning on the path to  healthier lifestyle, it’s easy for the 80/20 rule to become a bad habit that keeps you from meeting your health goal, and damages your health.

The 80/20 rule helps people adjust their mindset to better eating. We here in the US have been conditioned to believe that all foods are okay in moderation, including those foods that are high in sugar, rancid fats, MSG, preservatives, and wheat. We’re taught that if we simply limit our intake of those foods to about 20% of our diet we can still be perfectly healthy. There are some health professionals who believe the 80/20 rule was developed by food manufacturing companies to counter the message that sugar, wheat, preservatives, MSG, and other processed and man-made food chemicals are damaging to the human body. I don’t claim to know why the 80/20 rule was developed, and really, I don’t care.

What I do know is that the 80/20 rule prevents people from eating as well as they can, and ultimately damages health and prevents people from meeting their health goals. In our world, eating healthfully requires the mindset of not caring what other people think about your eating habits. It means being willing to go out to dinner with friends and family and make menu substitutions, ask about food preparation or order off the menu. Following a health promoting lifestyle in today’s world might mean being the only person at a party to skip the cake and ice cream, or the drinks.

For the person new to following a health promoting lifestyle the 80/20 rule makes perfect sense. You can follow your new eating and activity plan at home, when you are alone or with close family who won’t judge you negatively for your choices. Then, on the weekends or special occasions you can eat what everyone else is eating without guilt or pressure. It’s a good plan for the first year or so, but after that, the 80/20 rule becomes an excuse, a crutch, and most importantly an obstacle to health.

Here’s an example that comes from my own life. I strive to avoid all sugar. I use stevia to sweeten coffee, tea, baked goods, etc. I don’t buy foods that have added sugar of any type. I use honey once or twice a year for medicinal reasons, but that’s it. I limit myself to one or two servings of fruit each day, and I don’t eat grains. I get all the carbs my body needs from fruit and vegetables. I eat this way for one reason–I feel better without any sugar in my diet. But every year from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day I “cheat” just a bit. I love homemade cranberry sauce. I cut the sugar per recipe from 1 cup to 3/4 cup, and I only eat it once or twice each week. The cranberry sauce is significantly less than 20% of my diet.

So.. what happens when “cranberry season” is over and I cut that little bit of sugar back out of my system? Cravings. Intense, overwhelming sugar cravings. It’s the end of January, and I’m still fighting the sugar cravings brought on my love of cranberry sauce.

Why is that little bit of sugar still effecting me? Because sugar, in any form does the following things:

  • Feeds candida (aka yeast).
  • Causes inflammation inside the body.
  • Disrupts hormones that regulate appetite, blood sugar, and digestion.
  • Effects the pleasure centers of the brain.
  • Feeds specific bacteria that you don’t want in your gut.
  • Disrupts the balance of hormones in the brain.

These effects happen in the body every time a person eats sugar, regardless of how much they eat or how often. It doesn’t matter if the sugar comes from cake, cranberry sauce, alcohol, wheat, corn, or something else. The effects are the same, and they damage health in a variety of ways:

  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Compromised immune function
  • Any of the various symptoms of yeast overgrowth
  • Swelling in hands and feet
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Unstable blood sugar
  • Pain in a variety of places
  • Upset digestion
  • Potential to feed cancer cells

So, why the sugar cravings? A few reasons:

  1. Gut bacteria. Eating the sugar in the cranberry sauce fed the “bad” gut bacteria, and caused an overgrowth. Now, as I’ve removed the excess sugar from my diet, those same gut bacteria are starving to death and crying out for food. That causes sugar cravings.
  2. Candida. Same scenario as the gut bacteria. I ate sugar. The sugar fed the yeast and it reproduced. Lots of little yeasties need to be fed and I cut off their food supply, creating sugar cravings.
  3. Sugar stimulates the pleasure hormones in the body. The body gets used to the higher levels of hormones and become dependent on them. When the sugar stops, the extra hormones stopped being produced. The body thinks it needs more so it creates a craving for sugar. (This is a very simplified explanation.)

Let’s face it, most of us use “cheat days” to eat sugar-laden treats. And if we’re allowing ourselves to have cheat days then we are setting ourselves up to experience the negative health effects of sugar.

Why do so many of us depend on cheat days? I have a theory.

In our society eating fast food, high amounts of wheat and other grains, and large amounts of sugar and alcohol is considered normal– it’s the socially acceptable thing to do. People who purposely avoid sugar, grains, alcohol, vegetable oil, and food chemicals are considered extremists. Those who go so far as to carefully source their food to exclude CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) raised meats, non-organic, and GMO foods are usually looked at with suspicion.

Cheat days give us a time when we can “be like everybody else.” Humans tend to desire to be like those around them, right? So if your friends or family aren’t dedicated to healthy eating, then you’re always the odd one. That takes an emotional toll. Cheat days give you an opportunity to feel like part of the group when it comes to food. In my case with the cranberry sauce, it’s an attempt to hold on to tradition. Which is another form of “being like everybody else.” My family eats cranberries all year-long, but we ONLY eat them smothered in sugar between Thanksgiving and New Year. Why? Because my parents, grandparents, cousins, and great-grandparents made cranberry sauce for the holidays. And, because most Americans eat cranberry sauce during the holidays. It’s a tradition.

If you’ve been making it a point to eat healthy for more than a year, and you’re still using the 80/20 rule, it’s time to reexamine your motives. Do you really feel you can’t do without that 20% junk food? If the answer to that is “yes” then examine why you feel that way. Who are you trying to fit in with? Maybe you can find other ways feel connected and involved with those people.

I propose an experiment– Give up the 80/20 rule for three months. Spend the next three months following your nutrition plan 100% of the time. Then,  evaluate how you feel, your fitness level, energy levels, mood, and the state of any chronic or acute health conditions to determine if you feel any better mentally, physically or spiritually without the cheat days.

In order to successfully remove the cheat days from your routine you’ll have to take a long, honest look at why you feel you need those treats. If after those three months you truly miss the chocolate, chips, fast food, cake, ice cream or whatever, then eat it and enjoy every single bite. But if you find that you feel better without those cheat foods, then maybe it’s time to give up the cheat days and find alternatives that satisfy you.



  • Sara
    Posted January 31, 2017 1:31 pm 0Likes

    I keep the 80/20 “rule” in mind, not as a way to excuse cheating but to remind myself that I will make mistakes. If I made my diet be 100% perfect, I’d never succeed because I make mistakes. I grab the wrong can at the store. I can’t find the better food (we live in a food desert so being “perfect” is near impossible during the winter months). For me, it gives me that little wiggle room to do the best I can.
    I will confess that we’ve become really laxed lately because getting the real and better food in our area has become so much more difficult this past year or so. We’re hoping to regroup this spring/summer and start over again. That is if we can get some decent weather and harvests. Nothing like living in an area that struggles to provide real food.

Tell me your thoughts.