Using The 80/20 Rule

By Alexis Finniss Lizzie Merritt | In Fitness, Food and Diet, Strength Training | on April 20, 2015

Using the 80/20 Rule

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 diet? It breaks down to 80 percent of the time you focus on eating clean, good-for-you foods, and 20 percent of the time you have the freedom to indulge or cheat. So how does that apply to building muscle or getting cut? If you are trying to lose weight and get lean, what you eat and when you eat it matter more than how much you exercise. In fact, it breaks down to about 80% what you eat and 20% how much you exercise. Sure, it is possible to burn off last night’s dessert with extra cardio today. But that is not sustainable over time. The best way to get lean is to target what goes in your mouth.

There is so much advice out there. You can read two articles and they both contradict each other. For example, do I need carbs for fuel, or protein for muscle?

How does the 80/20 rule come into play? Moderation and real life. 80% of the time we are trying to make good healthy choices to fuel our bodies so they can perform to the best of their abilities. Then we allow ourselves some treats. Birthdays are cause for celebration, enjoy your piece of cake. Just don’t eat the whole cake.

Now that we are thoroughly confused, here are a couple of guidelines to help get you started.


The Basics:

  • Try to eat a veggie and protein at every meal and snack (Andrews, 2010).
  • Always eat breakfast! If you skip it, the primitive part of your brain will think food is scarce. So not only will it release hormones to make you super hungry, it will also slow down your metabolism to store up fat in case food is scarce in the future.
  • Try and make your caloric intake like an inverted pyramid. Most in the morning, some in the middle, little at night.
  • Try and make your carbohydrate intake earlier in the day (Matthews, 2012).


  • Your pre-workout meal doesn’t have to be big, but it’s a good idea to have a little bit of fuel in your body. Your pre-workout meal should be a balance of carbohydrates and protein.
  • WHY:

Back in the old days, people thought they should train on an empty stomach in order to burn more fat, but that has turned out to be FALSE.

In fact, your body needs some glucose (blood sugar) for fuel in addition to what it can use from fat stores when you’re working out. If you don’t have any blood sugar available, your body will eat the muscles’ glycogen, or stored glucose. Low blood sugar will also make you tired and sluggish during your training session.
For these reasons, you eat something 45 minutes to an hour before training — you’ll have more energy and endurance to work harder, burn more calories, and improve your muscle tone” (Bosari, 2012)

  • Post-workout: Again, aim for a balance of protein and carbohydrates.
  • WHY:

“After training, during a period known as the golden hour (45 to 60 minutes after a workout), muscles absorb the most nutrients, and glycogen is replaced the most efficiently.  You don’t have to have a huge meal — just a little something that contains both protein and carbs will give the best results” (Bosari, 2012).

    • A quick reminder: VEGETABLES have carbs. They are GOOD. Bread, pasta, donuts…not so good.

If fat loss is your goal…

  • Breakfast should be the largest meal and meals should get smaller throughout the day.
  • WHY: Your metabolism is at its natural peak in the morning and then slows down as night approaches (Matthews, 2012)
  • Try to eat protein at every meal and snack. It will help you feel full longer.

“Eating carbohydrates at night can hinder fat loss because when carbs are introduced to the system, the body releases insulin. Insulin stops the use of fat as an energy source.
Your body naturally burns the most fat while sleeping (another reason to get your zzzz). Therefore, going to sleep with elevated insulin levels interferes with fat loss.
Also, studies have found that insulin interferes with the production of growth hormone which has powerful fat-burning properties. Your body naturally produces the most growth hormone while sleeping. So if your body is flushed with insulin, your growth hormone production will suffer, and thus, so will your fat loss and muscle building benefits” (Matthews, 2012).

  • Bottom line: Avoid carbohydrates before bedtime.

If Muscle Definition is your goal…

  • Recent health studies suggest that while the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8g/kg of body weight, higher levels of protein intake benefit muscle mass, strength, and function, as well as bone health and energy balance. (Wolfe & Miller, 2008). How much more? For endurance and strength training athletes, about 10 to 35% for your daily energy intake should come from protein. Huh? In other words, if each gram of protein contain 4 calories, for a 2000 calorie/day diet, between 200 – 700 of your daily calories should come from protein.
  • Still confused? For a 150lb woman the recommended daily allowance of 0.8g/kg would be 54.4g of protein or 217.6 calories from protein per day while the higher protein, muscle building diet allows for 115.6g or 462.4 calories from protein per day. (Wolfe & Miller, 2008).
  • 462 calories from protein sounds good, but remember that not all protein is created equal. For example, beef is a fairly good protein source, but it is also high in saturated fats and calories. Vegetarians also have to consider that fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts are incomplete proteins and must be consumed in combinations that compliment each other to ensure that each of the essential amino acids is being consumed.

Before you get too crazy about it…

Remember, food is beautiful and it is meant to be enjoyed. If you hate what you are eating, there is no way you can sustain your healthy habits. Choose to eat things you LIKE. Eat them because they make you FEEL GOOD – not because “you are supposed to.”

If you are thinking, “I have to eat ….this salad.” then you are playing the victim. Take ownership of your choices. How will you ever get off the cycle of endless diets unless YOU choose what you want to eat because it makes you feel great, rather than because some diet book told you to eat it? Thinking back to the 80/20 rule, think moderation, moderation, moderation. Plan and make healthy choices 80% of the time, and allow for a few indulgences.

Your body will respond beautifully to love and nourishment, rather than disdain and punishment.

If you are looking for some ideas…

Here are just a few healthy suggestions for snacks or meals:
-Lettuce Wraps
-Turkey Asparagus Rollups
-Celery Sticks with nut butter
-½ cup non-fat plain yogurt, ¼ cup fresh berries, 1/8 cup chopped almonds
-Any raw veggies with 3 tbsp hummus
-½ cup non-fat cottage cheese, 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
-Frozen yogurt parfait
-English muffin jack melt
-Turkey Wrap
-Bean and Veggie Soup
-Tuna pita and ½ piece fruit
-Apple walnut chicken salad
-Turkey Chili
-Spinach Meatballs
-Chicken Stir Fry
-Greek chicken salad
-Chicken almond salad
-Shrimp lettuce wraps
-Caprese Chicken
-Shrimp tacos
-Veggie Omelet
-A hard boiled egg with salsa or some other fixin’
-Apple and nut butter (1 tbsp)
-Greek yogurt w a scoop of protein powder
-A low carb protein shake (You might want to steer away from protein bars as they feel like a candy bar and could put your brain into “dessert mode”)
-Peanut butter on whole grain/sprouted bread toast with cottage cheese
-Cottage cheese with a dash of cinnamon and deli slices with cucumber
-Whole wheat pita stuffed with lots of lettuce/veggies, plus deli slices
-Cereal with skim milk: WARNING – Many cereals are loaded with sugar. Carefully select a cereal that is low in sugar and high in fiber. Organic brands are your best bet.
-Nuts and dried fruit: Small portions only because nuts are a wonderful source of protein and healthy fat, but the calories can add up quickly. Dried fruit frequently has added sugar compared to its non-dried counterpart.

LizzieLizzie Merritt, M.Ed. uses her experience as a former science teacher and a fitness professional to write about weight loss psychology and positive psychology on her blog. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Love Yourself Naked: 12 Keys to the Art and Science of True Body Love, as well as the book 7 Ways to Willpower (available on Amazon.) You can click here to get your copy of her FREE special report, 23 Simple Weight Loss Hacks.




Andrews, R. (2010). All About Post-Workout Nutrition. Precision Nutrition Inc. Retrieved from
Borsari, K. (2012). Jillian Michael’s Pre-Workout Snack. Retrieved from
Matthews, M. (2012). Thinner, Leaner, Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Female Body. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Wolf and Miller (2008) Commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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