In the last ten or so years, the diet industry has pushed consumers to choose a dietary theory camp.

You have to be Paleo, Vegan, Raw, Vegetarian, or Grain-Free — or whatever diet-of-the- year happens to be on trend. God forbid you stray from your camp and you’re shunned, or worse you tell yourself you’re a lying cheat.

The reality is that no one wants to live like that and no one does. We all want to be healthy. We also want the flexibility to enjoy a stress-free night out or a chef’s new culinary creation, without asking the waiter to deconstruct every single ingredient, then passing on the flatbread because it contains a hint of real Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy.

Enter: The 80/20 Diet.

The title is pretty self explanatory: 80% of the time you eat good-for-you whole foods, and 20% of the time you can relax a little on the rules.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not a “diet” in the restrictive sense. It’s a diet in the way that it’s a food and eating philosophy.

If you’re a numbers person, then think of it this way: Three meals each day is 21 meals per week. When you apply the 80/20 rule, that’s about 4 times per week that you can have more ease in your choices.

Why force yourself to pick one way of eating without any flexibility when there are so many ways nutrient-rich foods available to prepare healthful meals? Paleo most of the time or generally gluten-free? Both work. And why not enjoy an occasional good-quality burger when most of the time — almost all of the time — you consciously fill your body with the nutrient-rich food it loves.

The 80/20 diet works so well because — spoiler alert! — no one is perfect. The stress of trying to be perfect can do more harm to your body than the occasional slice of bread. Food should fuel and nourish you, not create stress. Getting into a mind-set of never eating something ever again often feels constrictive and heavy. Knowing that you have some wiggle room helps relieve stress from rigid eating habits.

Here are some things to consider if you choose to embrace the 80/20 food philosophy:

Understand Your Food Repertoire & Habits

You may not realize it, but I bet you eat the same 5–10 foods in rotation every single week.

You have a favorite cereal, a specific order at your favorite lunch spot, the exact way you make your turkey sandwich, or a recipe from mom that always wins. Most people eat the same 5–10 foods in rotation, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Where this becomes problematic is when your repertoire is filled with sugary cereal, processed sandwiches, unhealthy fast food and food from the freezer section or cardboard box. If you can learn 5–10 new recipes that you love — that you actually look forward to eating — you can transform your life and health.

We often prepare food on autopilot. You wake up, rush to get ready and you’re out the door with a store-bought muffin or granola bar. You sit down at your desk and the day takes off with calls, meetings and to-do’s. Lunch time rolls around and your coworker wants to get takeout. You rush back to work and by the time you get home you have 20 minutes to prepare dinner, so it’s just easier to heat something up or order out. I get it — life is busy. The good news is that you don’t have to quit your job or dramatically change your life to eat healthy. All you have to do it learn to prepare simple food at home that you love, that works for you not against you. If you can snap out of autopilot for a few weeks and consciously select new favorite for your food rotation, you can incorporate the preparation and cooking of new meals where it fits into your life.

80% Category Guidelines

Homemade Vietnamese Pho Soup (Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free)
  • Cook or prepare your own food 80% of the time (it’s easier than you think!)
  • Cook once, eat 2 or 3 times. You don’t always have to be in the kitchen cooking if you make multiple meals at the same time.
  • Use whole food ingredients.
  • Use natural sweeteners in moderation; never use processed sugar or artificial sweeteners.
  • Choose naturally gluten-free and dairy-free foods. Both are hard to digest.
  • Learn how incredible real food tastes. Look at your 80% as food that you get to eat, not that you have to eat.

20% Category Guidelines

Generally the food in this category will come from social situations or indulging in a comfort-food favorite. It might be trying the chocolate cake that your best friend’s husband slaved over for her birthday, your mom’s Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, or Friday night pizza night.

What the 20% is NOT

Your 20% is NOT an entire pint of ice cream or that #2 from the drive-thru. For instance, french fries might be in your 20% (they are definitely in mine). However, processed fast food french fries are still on the never list because they’re filled with artificial chemicals. In my corporate days, I was sent to audit a chemical manufacturing company in the midwest. They made the chemical that goes in laser printer paper that makes it beautifully white and shine. They also made the chemical that fast food chains coat their french fries with, which is the reason your kid can drop a fry in the back seat and when you find it 4 months later is still hasn’t molded. Fries from a real whole potato, that either you or a restaurant you trust cuts fresh, make the list.

Common 20% Traps To Stay Away From

  • Forgetting portion control. Counting calories is no way to live so I don’t recommend it. However, be mindful of servings and portion sizes.
  • Not understanding how to manage your blood sugar, because blood sugar spikes can cause you to feel even more hungry.
  • Triggering allergies or sensitivities. Know your triggers and always avoid them.
  • Not enjoying your 80% — if you look at your 80% as deprivation, you’ll most likely go overboard on treating yourself.

Food Allergies & Sensitivities

If you have a food allergy or severe food sensitivity, then the 90/10 method might not work for that particular food. For, example, if you’re allergic to lactose, then you should be 100% lactose-free. The 80/20 idea is meant to give ease to your life, but not as an excuse to create or catalyze disease in your body.

If you want to get really wild and crazy you can even think of this way of eating more along the lines of 90/10. I personally hover around the 90/10 philosophy, but do what works best for you.

Ready for more? Come cook with me. Join my on my new cooking show, Elizabeth Eats, to learn new recipes that you’ll love. You can also check out my extensive recipe archive for more food inspiration and find your new healthy favorites.

Originally published at