Living 80/20 and 90/10: What Does That Really Mean?

Pop Question: What is the optimal human diet? 

High fat, low carb? Mediterranean? Low fat? Plant based? Paleo. 
If you struggle to answer the question, you’re not alone.

In a 2018 survey of over 1,000 Americans (ages 18-80), 80% of people report being confused about what “healthy eating” means thanks to tons of overwhelming, conflicting information. 

Sixty-percent of respondents also said that the conflicting information made them doubt their own food choices and concepts of “healthy eating.”

What to do about it?!

Enter: 80/20 balance.

80/20 Balance Defined

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 80/20 rule or “Pareto principle” applied to business or hard work which states “80% of our outcomes or results come from 20% of our efforts or causes.”

For example: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your highest paying clients; or 80% of your “gains” in the gym, come from that 20% focus on fine tuning your form or adding in a few days of strict strength or gymnastics work. 

However, in terms of nutrition, the 80/20 “rule” is a bit different.

Essentially it means: 80% of the time, eat real (anti-inflammatory) food. 20% of the time, let life (and vacations and Torchy’s Tacos) happen! 

In other words: NO PERFECTION.

Before giving you some detailed examples of what this actually looks like in practice, let’s first get a clear understanding of what “80%” foods and “20%” foods entail from a total health optimization point of view—particularly gut health. 


80% Foods

These are the “majority” foods that are real—think nutrient-dense, whole, unprocessed, one-ingredient type foods. A good rule of thumb to remember is: If it didn’t grow on the land, swim in the sea or roam the earth, it’s not real food. 

  • Meat and Poultry. Beef and lamb, but also pork, chicken, turkey, duck and wild game like venison, ostrich, etc. Organic and free-range is always preferable. “Natural” means NOTHING.

  • Pastured Eggs (Especially the yolks). Note: The albumin in egg whites is closely associated with gut inflammation and autoimmunity.

  • Organ Meats (especially liver). The most nutrient-dense food on the planet. If you don’t like the taste of liver, one good trick is to put one chicken liver in each cube of an ice cube tray and freeze them. Then, when you’re making any meat dish, dice up one chicken liver and add it to the meat.

  • Bone Broth & Meat Broth Soups. Balance your intake of muscle meats and organ meats with homemade bone broths. Bone broths are rich in glycine, and amino acid found in collagen, which is a protein important in maintaining a healthy gut lining.

  • Wild-Caught Fish. Especially fatty fish like salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel and herring. Wild is preferable. You need to eat three 6 oz. servings of fatty fish per week to balance your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

  • Starchy Tubers. Yams, sweet potatoes, yucca/manioc, winter squash, beets, carrots plantain, parnsips, etc.

  • Non-starchy Vegetables. Cooked and raw. Especially dark leafy greens. 

  • Fermented Vegetables and Fruits. Sauerkraut, kim chi, beet kvaas, coconut kefir, etc. These are excellent for gut health.

  • Fresh Fruit. (1-2 servings/day). Especially berries and green tipped bananas.

  • Traditional Fats. Coconut oil, palm oil, lard, duck fat, beef tallow and olive oil.

  • Olives, Avocados and Coconut (including coconut milk-no additives, coconut butter, unsweet coconut flakes).

  • Ghee & Grass-fed Butter

  • Sea Salt & Spices.


20% Foods (Eat Occasionally)

  • Egg Whites. Preferably pastured, free-range and/or organic. Why no eggs? Eggs are one of the top most allergenic foods. Exception: Pastured egg yolks—less gut inflammatory.

  • Nuts. Minimal small servings of sun-butter and seeds are easier to digest (a small handful or about 1/4 cup at most per day). If you do eat nuts, choose raw and soak overnight then dehydrated or roasted at low temperature (150 degrees) to improve digestibility. Favor nuts lower in omega-6, like hazelnuts and macadamias,and minimize nuts high in omega-6, like brazil nuts and almonds. No peanuts.

  • Pork. The slowest digesting meat of all meats. If you eat, opt for pastured, organic sources.

  • Processed Meat. Sausage, bacon and jerky. Make sure they are gluten, sugar, nitrate and soy free; Organic/free-range meat is preferable.

  • Dried Fruit & Dates. Depending on your blood sugar balance, can be high in sugar.

  • Nighshade Vegetables & Spices. Tomatoes, white potatoes, egg plant, chili, peppers, cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, etc.

  • Coffee and Black Tea. Black, or with coconut milk. Only if you don’t suffer from fatigue, insomnia orhypoglycemia, and only before 12:00 PM. Limit to one cup/day (not one triple expresso - one cup).

  • Dark Chocolate/Cacao. 70% or higher in small amounts (i.e. about the size of a silver dollar per serving/day) is a-OK.

  • Restaurant Food. The main problem with eating out is that restaurants cook with industrial seed oils, which wreak havoc on the body and cause serious inflammation. You don’t need to become a cave dweller, but it’s best to limit eating out as much as possible during this initial period.

  • Dairy. Keep dairy foods, like cheese, conventional yogurt, milk, cream & any dairy product that comes from a cow, goat or sheep to a minimum to distill any inflammation. Opt for coconut yogurt, additive-free unsweetened coconut milk or almond milk. Exceptions (80% foods) include grass-fed butter, ghee and grass-fed yogurt/Goat’s Milk yogurt as tolerated, since much of the lactose is extracted.

  • Grains. Including bread, rice, cereal, oats, pasta or any “gluten-free” pseudo grains like sorghum, teff, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, etc. (Exceptions: Coconut flour, Cassava Flour, Tapioca Starch)

  • Legumes. Including beans of all kinds (soy, black, kidney, pinto, etc.), peas, lentils and peanuts.

  • Concentrated Sweeteners, real or artificial. Including sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave, brown rice syrup, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet, xylitol, stevia, etc.

  • Gluten-Free Processed Foods.The only thing missing? Gluten. Many of these products are still as processed.

  • “Paleo-Friendly” or “Healthy” Packaged Foods & Baked Goods. Healthy, yes. But, same as the gluten-free processed foods…still in moderation. Build you plate first on sustainable proteins, greens and healthy fats—then adding in the occasional coconut flour tortillas,

  • Gut Inflammatory Foods (Not Advised) 
    The following foods are recommended to keep to a minimum (if at all). No, you cannot live in a bubble, but mindfulness with the fuel you put in to your body will directly impact your brain, gut and energy health!

    -> Processed or Refined Foods. As a general rule, if it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it. This also includes highly processed “health foods” like protein powder, energy bars, dairy-free creamers, etc.

    -> Industrial Seed Oils.
    Soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, canola, etc. Read labels - seed oils are in almost all processed, packaged and refined foods (which you should be mostly avoiding anyway).

    -> Sodas and Diet Sodas. All forms.

    -> Alcohol.
    In any form. (Don’t freak out. It’s just 30 days.)

    -> Processed Sauces and Seasonings.
    Soy sauce, tamari, and other processed seasonings and sauces (which often have sugar, soy, gluten, or all of the above).

The Bottom Line

Every body’s 80/20 foods may be a little bit different—depending on their unique health needs, culture and relationship with certain foods—however, for the most part, the 80% foods are the foods humans have thrived upon for thousands upon thousands of years. 

80/20 in Real Life

So now that we know what 80% and 20% foods are…what does eating 80/20 look like in real life?!

Here are a few specific examples for some of the most common scenarios you may find yourself in:

Exhibit A: Eating Out at a Restaurant

80%: Ordering a real food based meal (such as chicken fajitas san tortillas with guacamole and veggies)

20%: Eating a handful chips with salsa prior to the meal

Exhibit B: Traveling on Vacation

80%: Packing some essential snacks and/or stocking up at the grocery store when you arrive for nourishing foods (i.e. canned wild salmon, jerky, whole fruits, nutbutter packets, seaweed snax, etc.); Choosing the “best” options without restriction 

20%: Eating out without necessarily going “overboard” (such as 3-4 beers every night, or all-you-can-eat desserts)—but eating outside your normal routine, no sweat.

Exhibit C: Daily Eating Routine

80%: Eating protein, fat and veggies with each meal.

20%: Not always having to be “perfect” (i.e. grass-fed, or organic); Eating pseudo “healthy” foods (i.e. Simple Mills cheddar crackers, a protein bar, dark chocolate, a scoop of Mammoth ice cream, paleo pancakes, etc.). 

Exhibit D: Work Luncheon

80%: Removing the bread from the sandwich—eating the meat, fruit and veggies. 

20%: Eating the cheese that came on the sandwich. 

Exhibit E: Special Event (Wedding, Birthday, Holiday, etc.)

80%: Eating real food outside of the occasion. 

20%: Eating a slice of cake because it is your birthday gosh darn it!

Exhibit F: Fueling for Your CrossFit Workouts

80%: Building the base of your meals upon protein, fats and veggies. 

20%: Using a quality protein powder after a workout; Eating a little more starchy carb (white rice, sweet potatoes, etc.) than you typically would to fuel muscles

Exhibit G: Meal Prepping & Shopping for the Week

80%: Stocking up on grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, dark leafy greens, non-starchy veggies, some starchy tubers (rutabaga, carrots, sweet potatoes), healthy fats (avocado, coconut oil, ghee, etc.)

20%: Snagging a “treat” or two—Siete tortilla chips, Dr. Zevia soda, Keto Cups, gluten free bagels, etc. 

The main theme of these all? No perfection! Healthy eating and living is a lifestyle, not an ultimatum. When we treat it that way, a little bit of “dirt” (20%) actually does a body—and brain—good. 

Words of Wisdom from Resident Nutrition Expert: Lisa Thiel

Q. What is 80/20 nutrition in Lisa Thiel’s definition?

Lisa: In my years of working with clients and finding the best system for myself, I find the 80/20 rule makes any nutrition plan a lifestyle.  The 80/20 approach gets rid of the rigidity of a "diet" or "program" and gives freedom to live life (go on vacation, out to eat, over to a friends for dinner) and still stay on track. 

I recommend following 80/20 each day rather than having 80/20 for the week.  For example, each day I allow for 20% "not the best choices" rather than having a full on cheat meal or cheat day.  Cheat meals or days often throw blood sugar levels off and start the craving cycle - making it hard to get back on track for the next meal or day!  

Q. What are the most common roadblocks you see people run into with 80/20 balance?

Lisa. I have found a lot of success with giving people food lists that include a list of 80% food choices and 20% food choices!  This helps people have tangible guidelines they can follow.  

Depending on the personality, I find that helping people create a new set of "rules" around food helps them feel freedom in enjoying  ice cream or beer as prescribed rather than it being totally off limits!  The off limits mentality often leads to a greater desire for "forbidden foods".

Q. What does 80/20 look like in real life?

Lisa: If you're a numbers person - think like this -

  • On average you eat 8-10 "choices" of carbs a DAY then 1-2 of them are less favorable choices. Fruits and veggies, maybe some oats or brown rice then a cookie or beer with dinner!

  • On average you eat 35 meals a WEEK (5/day) - 7 of those meals can contain some less favorable items.

  • I don't recommend for ALL 7 of those meals being on Friday/Saturday/Sunday - it's too easy to over do it and go into a blood sugar/craving spiral! Spread it out and enjoy feeling great and fueling your body.

  • Lastly, be mindful of the portion of those unfavorable items as overindulgence can tip the 20% scales right over!

Nicole Hughes