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What is living 80/20? How it can help you find balance with healthy eating

Whether it’s giving up sugar or starting a new fitness regime, I think we’ve all had the experience of going hell for leather on a new habit, doing it “perfectly” for a week before having a bad day, binging on cookies and giving up on our new endeavour altogether.

We have all been there and that “all or nothing” mentality is one of the most common issues I support clients to work through and overcome. Changing this perspective is an important part of making sustainable progress towards your goals.

The 80/20 concept is helpful here and I use it with clients to address perfectionism and support them to find balance. It can be applied to lots of different areas of our lives, but here we will focus on food. It could mean aiming to eat nutritious or homemade food that makes you feel at your best roughly 80% of the time, and allowing yourself the remaining 20% to enjoy less nutritious treats.

I’m not a proponent of fad diets or complete restriction whatsoever, unless there is a medical need to do so. I believe there is a place for all foods in our diet (kale can coexist with your favourite chocolate bar).

And, often, the black and white way in which we refer to “good” and “bad” foods can do more harm than good as it sets us up to feel shame when we indulge in something we see as less than perfect. These feelings can ultimately sabotage our good efforts to eat more nutritious food.

Part of my 20%

How to use the concept of 80/20 to eat more healthily

Learn to love the 80%

The best way to achieve a healthy balance when it comes to your diet is learning to love the nutritionally dense food you nourish your body with. This also means learning to like cooking, even if it’s just a few times a week.

When you cook from scratch, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of pro-inflammatory ingredients you’re consuming from processed foods, which will boost your energy levels and overall health.

To gain some culinary inspiration, you could find a recipe book of simple ideas that use ingredients that appeal to you, or follow a few food bloggers. One of my favourite recipe books for quick, one dish dinners is The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer.

Rather than trying to force yourself to like health promoting foods that don’t appeal to you, follow your gut and choose simple recipes which inspire and excite you, that are based around whole ingredients like vegetables, whole grains and pulses.

Full disclosure here – I really don’t like lettuce. I’ve tried to like it in lots of different seemingly delicious salad variations but it just isn’t my thing, so I rarely eat cold salads and that’s okay.

If cooking doesn’t appeal to you at all, start small and build up. Decide to cook one homemade dinner this week with enough portions for you to have leftovers the next day too. Spend a bit of time choosing a simple recipe that looks delicious to you.


Enjoy your 20% mindfully

To avoid binging or inadvertently eating more treats in a week than you plan to, it’s helpful to mindfully choose the treats you’ll have and when you’re going to enjoy them.

They might form part of a social ritual, like enjoying a craft beer and some pizza with friends (definitely part of my 20%!) or you might decide to get yourself a brownie from your favourite coffee shop after that board meeting on Zoom you have on Wednesday.

Part of aiming to enjoy treats mindfully is becoming a detective when it comes to your automatic choices and where these could be sabotaging you. What foods do you reach for when you’re stressed, tired, or really hungry? Side line all judgement here. This is not an excuse to berate yourself for stress-eating cookies.

Craving high sugar foods and simple carbohydrates is a physiological response to stress. But by stepping back and seeing your food patterns clearly, you can decide to start dealing with stress in other ways too.

Imagine you’re craving something sweet, and when you stop to do a little internal inventory take, you realise that a bad meeting you had that day is still playing on your mind. You could allow yourself to enjoy the piece of cake guilt-free, but you can also look at reducing your stress by going for a quick walk in nature or with 10 minutes of yoga.

Check the ingredients of your favourite treat

A good habit to cultivate is looking at the ingredients of any packaged treats you buy for yourself regularly and opt for higher quality versions with fewer ingredients you can’t pronounce or have never heard of.

This will make you more aware of what exactly you’re putting into your body, and where you can make small swaps to enjoy a delicious treat that is more nourishing.

Notice and let go of guilt

While the treats you choose may not be nutritiously dense, they can be nourishing in other ways. Think about the last time you enjoyed a cupcake a friend made for you, or had a glass of wine with your friends. Our health is made up of far more than what’s on our plate and the emotional and social benefits of enjoying these treats can be incredibly important too.

Letting go of guilt around eating these foods can be a complex process, but the first step is noticing when feelings of guilt come up and taking a step back from them.

Identify what is coming up for you and instead of criticising yourself for reaching for a treat, celebrate the successes you’ve made that day.

While you may have eaten a packet of cookies today, perhaps you also remembered to have a good breakfast before work so you’d be less hungry later in the day, and you had a portion of greens with your dinner. That’s brilliant, remember to celebrate these steps!

It’s all about balance

Food isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” We know that eating a higher proportion of whole foods (not processed or pre-prepared) will improve our overall health, reduce symptoms of chronic illness, improve energy levels and immune function.

But there is a balance to be had, and addressing feelings of perfectionism towards food and enjoying treats mindfully has an important place in a healthy diet. The concept of 80/20 is one tool you can use to move you towards balance.

Have you used this concept before, or are you intrigued to try? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re really struggling with rigid behaviours around food, strong feelings of guilt and shame, or binge eating, it’s important to get support. Speak to your GP as a first port of call for a referral.

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