80/20 Eating: Why Good Enough Beats Perfect Every Time

By Michele M. Tuttle | Dec. 08, 2015, 6:20 p.m. (ET)

There’s a secret among nutritionists. We have clients who eat “better” than we do. It’s true. Depending on how you define better, there are many triathletes and others out there who strive to eat the perfect amounts of vegetables and fruits (and only organic and local), who eat no sugar or refined grains (and are gluten-free), and who carefully choose (or exclude) their protein and fat sources based on what they believe to be the most credible sources available (usually a well-known coach, author or academic expert).

In fact, attempting to eat too perfectly has a name. It’s called orthorexia nervosa, and it’s defined as being overly fixated on healthy eating.

What? How can it be possible to be too healthy? Obsessing over too many details of food is like fixating over the details of a workout. At some point, you have to settle in and just do the work (eat) and stop trying to find the perfect workout, piece of equipment or interval type.

Here’s another secret: there actually is no perfect diet or perfect foods. Every food out there has been deemed unhealthy or less than healthy at some point for different reasons, according to the information available. And, anything eaten to excess (even vegetables and fruits) can lead to unintended consequences and even nutrient deficiencies if not eaten within the context of a balanced diet. Thankfully, our bodies were designed to handle short-term fluctuations in nutrient intake without missing a beat. It’s what we eat (and don’t eat) over the long term that determines whether we gain weight, lose weight or develop certain illnesses or conditions*. This is why the 80/20 rule works well for nutrition and food: if we eat well 80 percent of the time, what we eat during the other 20 percent isn’t so critical. For many people, striving for perfection simply results in excessive restriction followed by overindulgence or complete disregard for health altogether. The net result is a mediocre diet and a lot of guilt, as the cycle repeats itself again and again.

There’s a better way. Let go of perfection. Go for good enough and consistency over the long term rather than perfection. For most of us, this works for training and it works for food.

So, what does 80/20 eating look like? Here are some examples:

  • Eight out of 10 meals and snacks include a protein source (animal or plant based), a fat source (mostly from plants) and carbohydrate sources like grains, fruit, vegetable, legume and/or dairy. A few examples:
  • Peanut butter and honey sandwich with baby carrots and yogurt
  • Minestrone soup made with beef or tofu and crusty bread
  • Steel cut oats with pecans, dried cranberries, brown sugar and milk
  • An omelet with sautéed spinach, onions and mushrooms, and a bit of smoked gouda
  • Eighty percent of our meals and snacks occur sitting down, preferably at a table and on a plate, and not in a car or at a desk. This allows us to actually focus on what we’re eating and take time to socialize while we’re at it.
  • Eighty percent of our meals and snacks include a calcium source from either dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), a fortified food or beverage (some types of tofu, soy and other “milks”) or cooked leafy greens (collards, kale, spinach, mustard greens). After all, every muscle contraction, heartbeat and nerve impulse requires this mineral. If you don’t eat it, your bones will supply it, getting weaker and thinner as they do over time.
  • Eighty percent of our meals and snacks include a good source of fiber, either from whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts or fruit. Enriched grain foods like pasta and breakfast cereals can also provide a little fiber along with other key nutrients like iron, B vitamins and folic acid. Avoiding carbohydrates from whole and enriched grains or beans means less fiber in the diet and even for endurance athletes, this is not a good thing since it’s these non-digestible fibers that feed our internal microbiome and keep it healthy.
  • Portions matter (even for triathletes). So eat 80 percent (or less) of what most restaurants serve you. And, if possible, eat 80 percent of your meals on a 10-inch plate rather than something larger.
  • Twenty percent of what we eat can be less than perfect. This means there’s a little room for foods and beverages that may not provide a whole lot of nutrients for the calories but provide a whole lot of enjoyment. And, when you know something is not completely forbidden you’ll tend to eat or drink less of it when you do have it. Twenty percent is not a lot though: it allows room for a glass of wine or a small dessert or that macaroni and cheese you’ve been craving but not all at the same meal or time. Unless you’ve just raced IRONMAN; if so, you get to eat whatever you want.

Give the 80/20 rule some thought. If you fluctuate a lot in terms of your weight and what you eat, the 80/20 approach might work well for you. If you hold your weight steady and tend to eat the same way throughout the year without a great deal of variance, then you probably already follow the 80/20 rule.

*Calorie intake, sleep and stress all interact and impact body weight.

Michele M. Tuttle, MPH, RDN is the owner of 4th Discipline Coaching LLC. She is a registered dietitian, a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, U.S. Masters Swim Coach (Levels 1 & 2) and is an All-American bronze medalist in the Sprint Triathlon Distance (London 2013). She coaches both triathletes and swimmers, incorporating nutrition and mindfulness into her training plans. Follow her on Twitter @IrongirlRD or contact her at mmtcomm@verizon.net.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.