Follow the 80/20 Rule to Transition to a Healthier Diet

Follow the 80/20 Rule to Transition to a Healthier Diet

Change is scary, especially when your doctor or health coach says your plan of care includes adopting a healthier lifestyle. And nowhere is that more confronting than when it comes to the foods we eat.

As most any health coach will tell you from their own experience, breaking the news to someone that they need to drastically alter their diet is a tough sell. That’s why I often start off with the 80/20 rule.

According to that rule, 80 percent of consequences are attributable to 20 percent of causes. We can apply this principle to any attempt at self-improvement and conclude that making small changes in our lives can lead to big improvements.

Even better, when we make two or more small changes, such as cutting back or eliminating sweets and taking a brisk two-mile walk every day, we start to experience compounding benefits. And each benefit we experience serves as motivation to make additional positive changes in our lives.

The 80/20 rule is a great reminder that we shouldn’t, “let the great be the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t let a pursuit for perfection discourage you from achieving less ambitious goals. Making positive changes — regardless of how small — is what really matters when we’re trying to improve outcomes, especially when we’re just getting started.

Our brains are highly adaptive. We can become accustomed to just about anything — even lifestyle changes — when we take a gradual and forgiving approach to achieving long-term success. Keeping a positive mindset and setting realistic objectives are essential for avoiding guilt, shame, and discouragement. Often the best approach is to make incremental changes, giving them time to become gradually hardwired into our brains.

Following the 80/20 Rule in Your Diet

The 80/20 rule is also known as the Pareto principle, named after esteemed economist Vilfredo Pareto. Having said that, the 80/20 rule for diet isn’t exactly what Pareto had in mind. Because — in the context of diet — the 80/20 rule means 80 percent whole foods and 20 percent prepared foods:

  • Whole foods are unprocessed and unrefined, such as fresh organic vegetables and fruits, raw nuts and seeds, grass-fed meats, wild fish, pasture-raised eggs, organic grass-fed dairy products, and healthy fats and oils.
  • Prepared foods should still be healthy options but may be processed or pre-packaged. They include easy-to-grab fun foods like granola bars and gluten-free and low-glycemic snacks and may even include takeout food from more health-conscious restaurants.

Another way to distinguish whole foods from processed foods is to look at whole foods as one-ingredient foods in contrast to multi-ingredient processed foods. For instance, broccoli has one ingredient (hint: it’s broccoli). Salmon consists of one ingredient — salmon.

In contrast, here’s the ingredient list for a popular 100 percent whole grain cracker:

  • Whole grain wheat flour
  • Canola oil
  • Sugar
  • Cornstarch
  • Malt syrup
  • Salt
  • Refiner’s syrup (whatever that is)
  • Leavening (calcium phosphate and baking soda)
  • BHT added to packaging material to retain freshness

By the way, there’s no such thing as whole grain bread! A whole grain is an actual kernel. You would need a hammer to split it open. How do you make bread from that? You can’t. Bread is made from flour, oil, and yeast, often with added sugar or other sweeteners. That grain has been milled into a flour, thereby increasing its glycemic load — its sugar impact.

I also refer to packaged, processed foods as “bar code” foods because they get scanned instead of weighed at the checkout counter.

Transitioning to an 80/20 Diet

Personally, I think consuming 20 percent of your diet in the form of snack or packaged foods is still high. Remember the Pareto principle — small changes can have big impacts on outcomes. Or considered another way, it’s what you’re doing most of the time that matters, not what you do all the time.

Start by logging what you eat during the day. Maintain the log for one to two weeks. Then, calculate the percentage of your diet comprised of whole foods and the percentage comprised of processed foods. This will give you a general idea of where you are on the healthy diet scale. (Scale, get it? Please don’t weigh in on my puns.)

Now, tweak your diet to include a greater percentage of whole foods. For example, if your current diet is 75 percent processed foods and only 25 percent whole foods, aim to increase your whole food percentage to 40 percent or 50 percent — whatever feels comfortable for you.

Many people don’t like to “waste” food, so they’re reluctant to toss all the processed foods they have in the trash. That’s okay. Just take the same approach when you shop at the grocery store — buy a greater percentage of whole foods and a smaller percentage of processed foods until you gradually wean yourself and your family off processed foods (or at least whittle down your consumption of them to 20 percent of your diet).

Pro Tip: Shop the perimeter of your grocery store. That’s where you’ll find whole, organic, and fresh foods. Processed foods — the ones you want to avoid — are found in the center and in between aisles.

The objective here is to consume as few processed foods as possible with the shortest ingredients list possible. Sometimes, just reading a processed food’s ingredients list is enough to convince you to put it back on the shelf.


About the Author: Rebecca Maas, Restoration Healthcare’s heath coach, works with patients — in alliance with our physicians — to restore their vitality and support their own bodies’ ability to heal by using a combination of nutrition, detox, supplementation, and lifestyle interventions. A graduate of UCLA, Rebecca also attended the University of California-Berkeley and studied Functional Nutrition and Holistic and Herbal Medicine at Natural Healing Institute of Naturopathy in Encinitas, Calif.