What an 80/20 Lifestyle Actually Means
Having worked with so many clients over the years, this concept has come up a lot. “All in moderation.”
Being in recovery from an eating disorder taught me that life is never perfect and neither am I. It’s typically 1 step forward, 2 steps back, especially when you are just beginning to change habits. But it really struck me when I realized what ab 80/20 moderate approach actually means to some.
I’ve had clients come to me expressing their goals and what they want to achieve, but holding their hands up and changing their tone in an instant when talking about foods that trigger inflammation like gluten, sugar, dairy, and especially, alcohol.
It’s a “Don’t you dare try and take my favorite food or drink away or I’m going to make a run for it!” kind of tone. I always laugh a little to myself because guess what? I’ve been there!! I’ve done the exact same thing.
One of my weaknesses used to be soda. Yes, you read that correctly. I used to be a soda drinker and had so much sugar in my diet that it led me to have horrible Candida symptoms, making me itch all over. It took me feeling absolutely miserable and at the end of my rope to try a new approach to food and lifestyle and I’ve never looked back since. Now, you couldn’t pay me to drink soda again and ruin my glowing skin, energy, and vitality.
One of our Health Coaches experienced this too. Before becoming a Health Coach, she absolutely loved eating dairy all day, every day. When she started reading a health book in college, explaining how dairy can cause inflammation, phlegm, weaken the immune system, and other issues, she recalls wanting to “throw the book across the room.” Needless to say, she didn’t finish that book.
But years later, she decided to try cutting out dairy from a place of curiosity to learn how it impacts her body. She was shocked to discover that her facial acne was a direct result of her dairy intake. Cutting out dairy kept her face bright and clear! For her, it was worth it to let go of dairy and only have it on special occasions.
I’ve also had clients excitedly report to me that they are meal prepping and eating healthy 4-5 days out of the week, and then “going ham” on the weekends, eating whatever they want, whenever they want. While some can do this and still lose weight, this perpetuates an unhealthy habit around food. Feeling the need to be “perfect” on certain days without focusing on enjoying real food, and then trashing the body the rest of the week to avoid feeling “deprived.” In my personal and professional opinion, that’s simply no way to really live and thrive. And it’s definitely not the “80/20” moderate approach I teach.
Please stop for a moment and ask yourself this question: If you were asked to give up sugar, alcohol, gluten, and/or dairy tomorrow, with the promise that if you did, you would feel exponentially happier and healthier for the rest of my life, would you do it? If the answer is “heck no!” just make note. Would it take an illness/hospitalization to make a change? My hope is no, but many times, it takes people hitting rock bottom to finally make the lifestyle changes they know they need to make. Just as it did for me and countless people I know.
I want to emphasize that this isn’t pushing an “Orthorexic” mindset: an eating disorder where one becomes afraid of so many foods and so hyper-vigilant about “cleanliness” that they eat barely anything at all. Thoughts around food become fearful and toxic.
What 80/20 actually means to me and what I teach to my clients is not perfection on weekdays and “No holds barred” on weekends. Nor the need to follow strict rules and eat “perfectly” as much as possible. There’s a happy medium we can reach, and while that looks different for everyone, it starts with several “Golden Guidelines”:
- Never put yourself on a diet. The people who restrict themselves on weekdays and binge eat/drink on weekends are putting themselves on a vicious yo-yo diet cycle that increases stress and causes weight fluctuations. It makes it harder to be healthy. In order to actually achieve a healthy 80/20 approach, we must create lifestyle changes that last. These are personal agreements we make with ourselves for how we want to live and feel, and influence our daily choices in positive ways.
- Mindset, mindset, mindset. Food is not the enemy, my friends. Food, real food, is meant to nourish you, mind, body, and soul. It’s meant to “fuel your tank” like filling up at the gas station. It’s meant to give you energy rather than anxiety. It’s meant to increase your focus and attention, not give you brain fog. We create healthy lifestyle habits with a healthy relationship to food. How we approach our plate, talk about food, and even treat food matters because the body is always listening. How you view foods that may be causing you inflammation matters too.
- Scrap “good” vs “bad” – Calling foods “good” vs “bad” or “junk” vs “clean” sets the tone for all or nothing thinking. It’s the same as telling yourself you “can’t have” x, y, or z food or drink. The minute you tell yourself you can’t, your brain wants it all the more. Why? Because of the language you use and where you are focusing your energy – the unconscious mind listens. Try this on for size – rather than labeling certain foods, begin to simply ask yourself, “How does this food make me feel hours and days after I eat it? Is it helping me?” From that place of self-awareness, you can make food choices without creating a guilt/shame complex.
- Ask yourself, “What am I really craving when I reach for this food/drink?” Many times, we unconsciously create unhealthy habits around eating for comfort in order to ignore our deeper emotions that bring about discomfort. The question then is – “What do you actually NEED at this moment?” The truth is, there are healthy ways to satisfy our needs without the use of food or drink. If the thought of reducing or eliminating a food or beverage from your lifestyle brings a feeling of “fight or flight” instead of “sure why not try?”, pay very close attention. That’s a sign that an unhealthy attachment has formed between you and the thing you are afraid to lose. Get in touch with your needs and you’re well on your way to moving in the direction of satisfying them healthfully.
If you are thinking, “But Nikki, I won’t have a social life any more if I don’t go out drinking!” Let’s take a look at that. Is it true you can’t go out and have great conversations, go dancing, play board games with friends, share a delicious meal, go for a hike in nature, or do other fun activities with friends without drinking? Answer honestly. Is it true you need that glass of wine to relax at the end of a long day or could you take a bath, treat yourself to a weekly massage, or do an infrared sauna session and still accomplish the end goal of feeling relaxed?
There’s something deeper going on around habits that don’t serve us than the surface excuses we make for keeping them. You can absolutely have fun with friends, family, and your loved ones without overeating, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, or other addictive habits. You can absolutely give yourself TLC and some much needed R&R without the glass of wine. The habits were created for reasons other than the habits themselves.
So then, what IS 80/20? It’s simply a rule of thumb that 80% of the time you will focus on making the best lifestyle choices possible, leaving 20% to remember you aren’t perfect and to give yourself some grace. I like to teach this to clients because if they come in with the idea that they must be 100% perfect or it won’t work, they are setting themselves up for failure. Even 90% accuracy right off the bat might be too much from the get-go if you are new to change, even if you are “Type A”. But 80%, a solid B? You can do that. It’s manageable, feasible, and it’s a great place to start.
In fact, what’s funny about teaching 80/20 is that many times, people feel so great that they naturally avoid things that don’t serve them 90-95% of the time without thinking much of it. Some end up eliminating certain things altogether that no longer serve them, replacing them with better options instead! But typically not by starting with the 100% mentality if it’s something they’ve become attached to.
I know an 80/20 healthy lifestyle approach is beginning to work for my clients when they say things like, “I went to the party and thought, ‘I want a cookie!’ so I ate one, enjoyed it, and I ate delicious whole foods the rest of my meal. I used to beat myself up so much if I thought I had ‘cheated my diet’. So much that at times, I’d go on a sugar binge and eat 10 cookies instead of enjoying 1 because I knew I’d be right back to the diet the next day! This approach is so much more manageable!”
I’ve also had clients excitedly report, “I ate until I was 80% full, enjoying every bite, and I felt great hours and days later after the holiday get-together! I didn’t push myself crazy hard at the gym the next day, believing I had to ‘burn it all off’. I didn’t feel so uncomfortably full either. I even brought something new to share that I knew wouldn’t cause me inflammation! I remembered that 1 day of eating outside of my usual routine is not going to derail me. I stayed hydrated, slept well, and felt right on track. It’s actually a great reminder that what I choose the majority of the time works!”
Now you might be asking yourself, how does one decide what constitutes their 20%? For each and every person, that is going to be very different. It’s something that you learn with time, develop with time, and change over time. 20% to one of our coaches means if she goes out to dinner with friends or family, she will ask herself if she’d like to have a glass of wine, a dessert, or a piece of bread with dinner. Not all 3, just 1. It makes it feel special. With time, it’s also become a 5% occurrence that makes it feel really special just now and then. If she’s really not in the mood for those things then she simply says “maybe next time” and lets it go. She also learned that while foods with dairy and gluten taste great in the moment, she’d rather feel great the next few days than have to deal with digestive upset, mood fluctuations, and potential breakouts. That’s called “prioritizing the future self” in moments of temptation.
The important thing is YOU get to decide for yourself. We don’t choose the 20% for our clients but rather, help them become aware of current patterns, which foods make them feel great, which don’t, and they decide from there. How often do you want to feel from foods? Can you create a “win/win” around this pattern instead of a “win/lose”? What do YOU want to do? When you realign and connect your mind and body, you make powerful choices because it’s what you desire to do. Not because it’s a rule that you feel forced to follow.
Get real about what “flexibility” means to you with food, and be kind to yourself in the process. It’s a journey and it changes with time. A great “rule of thumb” I also like to ask is “What’s the good/better/best option?” at any given moment. Meaning – can you aim for a good option (as best you can) even in situations where you didn’t plan ahead/don’t have a lot available to you? It starts to relinquish the idea that you must be perfect at all times. “Good” is absolutely “Good enough”.
What’s really important with that 20% is that it must be things that you can let go of the other 80% of the time. If you are addicted to certain foods or drinks, or if they are currently very triggering and can easily cause you to “relapse”, those are not the things to keep in your 20%. Real moderation is the ability to consciously choose something at any given moment, without falling prey to ingrained unconscious habits. So for those of you managing alcoholism, alcohol is not a part of your 20%. For me, 20% doesn’t include habits that trigger the pattern of my old eating disorders. For one of our Health Coaches, she will “crowd out” certain foods altogether that simply don’t make her feel well and choose great replacements instead.
Here’s a fun game I play with clients that I’d love for you to try! See if you can go out and have a good time without eating or drinking. Most carry a story of what it would be like so they never try it. I always say the first time WILL be awkward and hard, so set the right expectations. But soon you will notice something starts to shift….
You start to become more comfortable without the food and drink. Everyone else is a little tipsy so it gives you permission to just be yourself. You realize that if people comment you simply say “I feel great thank you!” because their comments have nothing to do with you. You don’t stay out as late, don’t eat at the 24/7 pizza window, you have a killer night’s sleep and, guess what?? You wake up feeling so grateful and naturally HIGH because you are not hungover, and you overcame a huge obstacle. That in turn creates a dopamine hit, which imprints a seed of reward in your brain, and with repetition, becomes muscle memory. You’ve truly experienced that you can actually go out, have a great time and not act out with food or drink.
That doesn’t mean you’ll never drink or have your favorite foods….it simply means you are CHOOSING POWERFULLY when you go out and skip alcohol. Or choosing powerfully when you go out and eat healthy foods or eat before you go. It’s no longer an unconscious habit that you perform out of fear because of a story you made up that life is “no fun” without it.
Healing takes time. Change takes time. We focus on the journey and in doing so, our small incremental changes and gains do add up to tremendous results! It takes immense courage to ask for help and accountability with where you are at with your current food choices and lifestyle habits. We are here not to judge, but to walk the journey with you every step of the way. It’s transformed our lives and the lives of countless clients we’ve worked with, and we know it can for you too!