The 80/20 rule diet allows you to eat healthy 80% of the time and indulge 20% of the time.

It’s a flexible approach to dieting that allows you to enjoy some of your favorite foods that may not be the most diet-friendly.

The 80/20 diet can be easier to follow than traditional diets, which tend to be very strict, but the diet isn’t for everyone.

This article explains the benefits and downsides of the 80/20 rule diet, provides a sample diet menu, and explains how exercise fits in the 80/20 rule.

80/20 rule diet

What is the 80/20 rule diet?

The 80/20 rule diet is a flexible approach to weight loss that incorporates balance and moderation.

Traditional diets tend to be black and white — you can either have a specific food or you can’t.

This has led people to believe that you can’t lose weight unless your diet consists only of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins.

However, it’s possible to lose weight and still eat your favorite treats or snacks so long as you consistently consume fewer calories than you need to maintain your weight.

Still, eating too much of your favorite treats and snacks can make it more difficult to lose weight since they tend to be higher in calories.

This is why the 80/20 rule diet encourages moderation with your favorite treats, allowing them only 20% of the time.

The 80/20 diet works well for bodybuilders or other physique athletes and anyone who wants more flexibility with their diet.

Calculation

The most effective way to determine what 20% of the time looks like for you is to calculate 20% of your daily calorie goal.

For example, if your daily calorie limit is 1,500 calories, 20% would represent 300 calories (1,500 x 0.20 = 300).

This means you have 300 calories to “spend” on whatever you like, which could be 1 cup of vanilla ice cream, one slice of regular crust pizza, a blended iced coffee from Starbucks, or something else.

If you don’t know your calorie goal for weight loss, you can use an online calorie calculator to get an estimate of your maintenance calories — the number of calories you need to maintain your body weight.

Then, subtract 300–500 calories to get your calorie goal for weight loss (1).

For instance, if the online calculator estimated your maintenance calories at 2,000, your calorie goal for weight loss would be 1,500–1,700 calories per day.

Foods to eat

Here is a list of foods to eat 80% of the time and a list of foods to eat 20% of the time:

Foods to eat 80% of the time

The majority of your diet should consist of minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods.

These include:

  • Fruits: apples, apricots, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, plums, kiwifruit, mangos, melons, oranges, pears, rhubarb, etc.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: arugula, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, green beans, kale, leeks, mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc.
  • Starchy vegetables: corn, green peas, potatoes, squash, and yams
  • Whole grains: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, rice, and whole-grain rice, pasta, and bread
  • Legumes: beans, peanuts, chickpeas, and lentils
  • Seeds and nuts: almonds, cashews, chia seeds, flax seeds, hazelnuts, pecans, pomegranate seeds, pistachios, etc.
  • Dairy and dairy alternatives: milk and milk alternatives, cottage cheese, and yogurt
  • Poultry: eggs, duck, skinless chicken, turkey, and quail
  • Lean meats: lean cuts of beef and pork that say “loin” or “round”
  • Seafood: all fish and shellfish
  • Oils: avocado, canola, and extra-virgin olive oil
  • Beverages: black coffee, green tea, water, and other calorie-free beverages

Foods to eat 20% of the time

Limit ultra-processed foods, fried foods, and processed meats to 20% of your diet.

Examples include:

  • sugary drinks, like specialty coffee drinks and regular soda and energy drinks
  • chocolate and candies
  • ice cream and other frozen desserts
  • fast food, like French fries, burgers, and tacos
  • frozen entrees, like pasta dishes and pizza
  • bakery products, like buns, cakes, rolls, and muffins
  • processed meats, like sausages, deli meats, and hot dogs
  • packaged snacks, like chips, cookies, fruit snacks, and other treats
  • sweetened breakfast cereals, like Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Apple Jacks, and Lucky Charms

Sample 80/20 rule menu

Here’s a sample 80/20 rule menu that contains about 1,500 calories:

Breakfast: 2 whole eggs and 1 cup of oatmeal topped with blueberries and sprinkled with cinnamon

Snack: 1 cup of non-fat Greek yogurt and 1 ounce of almonds

Lunch: 4 ounces of grilled chicken with zucchini noodles, grape tomatoes, and parmesan cheese

Dinner: 4 ounces of baked salmon with asparagus spears

Snack: 1 cup vanilla ice cream

About 20% of the calories from the sample menu come from the vanilla ice cream.

Benefits

All diets work by creating a calorie deficit — meaning they consist of fewer calories than you burn.

However, most diets fail because they’re difficult to stick with long-term (2, 3).

Indeed, research has shown that weight loss is strongly associated with a person’s ability to follow a diet long-term — not with the diet type (2).

Most diets restrict certain macronutrients — usually either carbs or fats — or entire food groups.

But research has shown that when calories and protein are controlled, people experience the same amount of weight loss, independent of whether the diet is low-carb or low-fat (4, 5).

And unless you have a food allergy or intolerance, they’re no benefit to limiting entire food groups for weight loss, and doing so could provide for a less nutritious diet.

As such, the main benefit of the 80/20 diet is its emphasis on balance and moderation since it allows indulgence some of the time.

For many people, this flexibility can make the diet easier to follow — especially during holidays and special events — and therefore result in more sustainable weight loss long-term.

The 80/20 diet can also deliver weight loss results without promoting emotions of guilt of failure that a more rigid diet plan may bring if you eat something off-plan (6).

Downsides

Everything in moderation — while a good message for most — doesn’t work for everyone.

Some people who aren’t in control of their eating behaviors — such as those with a binge eating disorder or who compulsively overeat — may benefit from a more rigid diet.

This is because certain foods like pizza, ice cream, or cake may trigger an emotional or biological response that leads to an episode of binging (7, 8).

And while sugar isn’t necessarily addictive, the combination of sugar, fat, and sodium in certain foods can make it very difficult to limit your portion sizes — even for the most disciplined people (9, 10, 11).

I, for example, don’t meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of binge eating disorder, but I do have several trigger foods — mainly cookies and cream ice cream and chocolate bars like Twix and Kit Kat bars — that I have identified over the years.

I have made great progress in being able to control my portions when I am exposed to them, but in the beginning, I found it best to completely avoid them.

As such, if you have a trigger food, but still wish to follow the 80/20 diet, it may be best to completely abstain from that food until you develop more self-control.

Still, self-control is estimated to be 60% genetics, so not everyone may have the best control when faced with their trigger food or other temptation (12).

80/20 rule for diet and exercise

The 80/20 rule diet is also thought to apply to diet and exercise for weight loss.

The thought is 80% of your weight loss comes from diet and the remaining 20% from exercise.

While there’s no evidence to support this ratio, a combination of diet and exercise is optimal for weight loss and weight loss maintenance.

However, if you had to choose between diet or exercise for weight loss, diet is superior.

This is because it’s easier and more sustainable to create a calorie deficit through diet rather than exercise alone, as you may not have the time, energy, or motivation to exercise daily. And exercise burns fewer calories than most people think (13, 14, 15, 16).

In other words, for most people, it’s easier and more practical to eat 300–500 fewer calories than it is to burn 300–500 calories through exercise each day.

Nonetheless, you should still regularly engage in weight lifting and aerobic or cardio exercise — not just for the weight loss benefits but also for the myriad of health benefits, like lower blood pressure and cholesterol, better sleep, and improved mental health (17).

The bottom line

The 80/20 diet offers a flexible approach to dieting, allowing you to indulge 20% of the time.

The diet’s emphasis on balance and moderation can make it easier to follow and therefore lose weight.

However, this balance and moderation may not work for everyone, particularly those with food triggers and who have poor self-control with certain foods.

And while it’s commonly thought that 80% of your weight loss comes from diet and the remaining 20% from exercise, there’s no evidence to support this.

For the best results, incorporate the 80/20 diet with some resistance training and cardio exercise.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.