Dieting is obsolete. You may even agree that “being on a diet” is not a phrase often used by Millenial or Gen Z dancers. Instead, it’s all about “wellness,” a topic that I’ve previously discussed (click to grab tips on how dancers can spot diet culture even when under the trickiest of guises.)
What’s the 80/20 diet rule?
It’s simple: if you eat “healthy” 80% of the time, then you have room to eat “unhealthy” the remaining 20% of the time. The goal is to crowd out foods society has deemed unhealthy or “off limits” with those deemed healthy or “clean.”
This tool is commonly used by dancers who are attempting to incorporate all foods into their meal plans. It’s often seen as a “non-diet” approach simply because it theoretically allows for all foods to be included in one’s day/week/month/year (kind of). Mathematically, it offers you room for any food. What’s so bad about that?
As a dietitian, I don’t recommend the 80/20 diet rule
There was a time when I believed 80/20 diet rule was helpful. As both a dancer and dietitian working with dancers, the 80/20 rule offered a clearer and more concrete definition when compared to the ol’ “eat in moderation” advice.
But I soon realized that this approach was not helping my relationship with food. And it surely wasn’t sustainable. For many, including my past self, this mindset turns into the Weekend Diet with Saturdays and Sundays essentially “cheat days.”
Why is the 80/20 diet rule problematic?
Similar to “eating in moderation,” the 80/20 rule categorizes foods as “bad” or “unhealthy” and “good” or “healthy.” Click here to learn more about my thoughts about “eating in moderation.” When we view food in this way and subsequently set limits around those considered to be “bad” (like allowing ourselves to eat it only “20%” of the time), we create a landscape designed to drive desire.
As a result, eating foods now deemed “off-limits” (because of the “80/20” rule) become instances filled with food guilt. The intention is no longer to enjoy food, but rather, to rebel against that inner voice telling you “I shouldn’t be eating this!” Research even shows that when compared to non-dieters, dieters (defined as anyone who sets limits on what they eat, when they eat, and/or how much they eat) eventually eat more of an “off-limits” food once that food is made available.
It’s the “throw in the towel” effect. Once you’ve started to eat an “off-limits” food (FYI these foods are not inherently bad but rather deemed “off-limits” by diet culture) then you “throw in the towel” because “starting tomorrow” you will plan to “get back on track.”
Bottom line: this 80/20 diet is a food rule that is bound to fail.
Break free from the 80/20 food rule
Identifying restrictive food rules is not easy because of the prevalence of wellness culture, which masks diet advice with terms like “wellness,” “wholesome,” and “pure.” But if you’re cycling between feeling very in control around those “off-limit” foods and feeling very out-of-control around those foods, then you’re eating patterns are likely, not sustainable.
First, invest in a journal to gently record how various foods make you feel physical, mentally, and emotionally. From there, you’ll start practicing unconditional permission around those “off-limits” foods (the ones you previously deemed “okay” only 20% of the time). And last, consider how you can begin utilizing nutrition information in a way that’s supportive and not obsessive. Start here and eventually, you will build trust in yourself when eating those ‘off-limit” foods by listening to fullness cues.