Mastering The “80/20” Approach to Nutrition

What if I told you that every year you could eat somewhere between 250 and 300 meals of ‘whatever you wanted’, and STILL see great results?

What if I told you that out of those 250-300 meals, you should feel guilty about a grand total of ZERO of them?

What if I told you that this way of thinking about nutrition is 100% legit, and 100% designed to free your mind and improve your relationship with food forever?


I can hear it now; “Jeff, that is total BULL SH*T!”

……but wait hear me out!


I’ve discussed nutrition through articles and workshops ad-nauseam over the past few of years – it’s been a hot topic to say the least. 

Something I’ve left out though (outside of discussions with own clients) is the idea of the ‘80/20 mentality’. 


What is the “80/20” Mentality? 

With respect to nutrition, the 80/20 approach is simply a strategy to help create flexibility within somebody’s diet. 

This is important because flexibility leads to adherence, and we know that adherence is the number 1 most important factor in determining the success of any diet.

80/20 can either mean; Giving yourself a 20% leeway either up or down on a particular target (instead of a rigid number) OR; Sticking to a more rigid number 80% of the time, and not worrying about it the other 20% of the time. 


This brings me back to my initial, seemingly outlandish claim that a person could set aside 250-300 meals per year and still see great results;


(365 days   x  ~4 meals per day)  x0.2

= 292 meals


By this point, you’re either amazed at the fact I can do basic math, or the fact that you can eat almost 300 “whatever-I-want” meals per year. 


Is The 80/20 approach backed by science?

Well yes & no.

Think of the 80/20 approach as an extension of some very basic scientific principles and years of ongoing as well as current research (as discussed in my previous articles and workshops).

Science has helped some very smart people prioritize certain factors when it comes to nutrition – namely Eric Helms & Dr. Mike Israetel, two people I consider to be my mentors. 

We know that whether the goal is weight gain or weight loss, the following hierarchy holds true (from most to least important).

  1. Adherence 
  2. Calorie balance
  3. Macro-nutrient ratios
  4. Micronutrient ratios
  5. Meal timing & frequency
  6. Supplements


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How Do I Implement the 80/20 approach?

Practically speaking, once you’ve figured out the quantity of calories your body requires for a given activity level & goal, and set up a protein target of around 1g per pound of body-weight, you can now begin to play the 80/20 game. 

There are many calculators out there to help you estimate this number. Here’s a good one:


How Does The 80/20 Approach Effect My Relationship With Food?

The 80/20 approach is not a pass-fail system, so it leaves LOTS of room for flexibility. Flexibility leads to adherence, adherence leads to results, and results lead to confidence.

Confidence = a liberated mind


Knowing that calorie-balance is the 2nd most important factor outside of adherence, you can set yourself free from the narrow minded and rigid construct that says there are “good” and “bad” foods. 



Remember, you have somewhere between 250-300 meals every year to just say “f*ck it”. Assuming your calorie-balance is in check for the remaining 80%, those meals won't hinder your results. 


At this point, it should be VERY clear that the following meals should never be associated with feelings of guilt.

  • Birthday dinners
  • Thanksgiving dinner + pie
  • Christmas dinner + butter tarts and Turtles (x10)
  • The “It’s Friday so let’s eat a couple pieces of pizza and wine” dinner.

A wise archer once said: 

“You can’t un-shoot an arrow. The only arrows that matter are the ones left in your quiver”

This also applies to food. Worrying about ‘missing the mark’ on a few meals every week or weekend changes nothing – especially knowing how insignificant they are in the big picture. 


Does The 80/20 Approach Actually Work?

For those individuals’ who are not antisocial robots programmed to eat steamed asparagus and tilapia every day – yes, it works. 

These robots exist in small numbers and can have great success though – and I respect their adherence (also the fact that they don’t buy boxes of Turtles during Christmas).


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Wrapping up the 80/20


The 80/20 approach to nutrition is simply a theoretical way of looking at the big picture.


It allows for a lot of flexibility in terms of food choices, which can have a dramatic & positive effect when it comes to adhering to a diet. 


80/20 still bows down to the rules of calorie balance; meaning that individuals MUST have a clear handle on their daily energy requirements and how that reflects their specific goals. 


Anecdotally, the 80/20 approach to nutrition paves a very nice path to adherence – which is the single most important factor in determining the success of an diet.  

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