The 80/20 Rule Promises Easy Weight Loss—But Does It Work?

Dietitians explain how to make it work for you.

There's a new weight loss scheme making the rounds on the internet, and many people swear by it. It's known as the 80/20 rule, and the concept is simple: For 80 percent of the time, you follow a nutritious eating plan that falls within your set calorie budget. For the remaining 20 percent, you can let loose a little, enjoying the foods you love with fewer restrictions.

For many people, this offers a balanced approach to dieting that puts weight loss well within reach. However, others have found that despite adhering to the plan, the scale won't budge. Wondering if the 80/20 rule might work for you? Here's everything you need to know about the new eating plan that promises easy weight loss.

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What is the 80/20 rule?

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The 80/20 rule may sound straightforward, but it can actually look very different from person to person. For some people, an 80/20 split means following a strict diet for five days out of the week and then indulging in two cheat days. For others, it means carefully breaking up each day's calorie budget to allow for a daily splurge that accounts for 20 percent.

The key to success is to get honest with yourself about how much structure you need to stay on track with your diet plan. Trying the plan out various ways can help you determine what works best for you and your lifestyle.

Krutika Nanavati, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist practicing in New Zealand and a medical advisor at Clinicspots, says there are several benefits to the 80/20 rule.

"Flexibility prevents deprivation and burnout, fostering long-term adherence," she tells Best Life, adding that enjoying occasional treats can provide mental relief and reduce cravings. Planning for controlled indulgence may ultimately help some people avoid binging behaviors, she notes.

If you have an active social life, you may also appreciate how the flexible 20 percent of your schedule allows you to enjoy shared meals with others. Instead of having those events sway you off course, you can treat them as normal parts of life that you balance in the remaining 80 percent of your time.

However, not everyone following the 80/20 rule will find that it leads to easy weight loss. Nanavati says that many people overeat significantly during their flex days and struggle to switch between restriction and non-restriction. "The 20 percent freedom might lead to unhealthy choices, compromising overall effectiveness," which she says depends on "personal habits, discipline, and metabolic factors."

She also warns that any diet plan that you view as a "quick fix" may ultimately end in disappointment. The 80/20 rule, like all other weight loss plans, "requires long-term commitment and consistent effort for noticeable weight loss," the dietitian says.

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How to successfully follow the 80/20 diet.

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Michele Saari, MSc, RD, a registered dietitian working with EHealth Project, says that with a few slight changes, the general concept of the 80/20 rule can lead to significant and sustainable weight loss. In particular, she suggests tweaking how much time you spend eating healthy meals versus eating flexibly. A 90/10 split is ideal, she says.

"If someone is telling you that 20 percent of the time, such as on weekends, you can eat whatever you want, you likely will not lose weight," Saari explains. "Those two days or 20 percent of the time eating whatever you want can throw away all the hard work you put in throughout the week. Someone could easily eat and drink thousands more calories on the weekend than they intended to, and this will lead to weight gain."

She adds that the specifics of what you eat will also determine whether or not you shed pounds. The vast majority of the time, your diet should be built around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, a range of vitamins and minerals, and ample water.

When you do indulge, it's still best to maintain a little bit of structure. "Make sure that you fill up on a nutritious meal before, including a high fiber and protein option," Saari says. "When you're eating your treats, try to listen to your body when you're actually full… there's no need to clean your plate if it's only going to make you feel overly full and uncomfortable after."

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Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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