Apply the 80-20 Fitness and Nutrition Principle and Win at Weight Loss

Created by Elly McGuinness

Last Updated: August 1, 2017


You may have heard of the Pareto principle, also known as the ’80-20 rule’. This principle states that ‘80% of your success comes from 20% of your efforts’.  It is also known as the principle of least effort.  While there’s a lot of merit in this principle when used in a certain context, the 80 20 lifestyle in health and fitness circles is somewhat inversely proportional to this! Throughout this post, I’ll refer to it as 80 20 fitness.

There are a couple of ways that 80 20 fitness is talked about. The first is that 80% of your efforts should be focused on nutrition, with the other 20% focused on exercise. 80 diet 20 exercise is not necessarily a principle I follow. This is because I believe that additional factors need to be considered when optimal health is your goal. These include stress levels, sleep, thoughts, and relationships. They form part of a holistic health and fitness model.

The second way that we talk about 80 20 fitness is the one that resonates strongly with me. There is a lot of evidence of unhealthy behaviors in modern society. These range from making poor food and exercise choices, to the other end of the spectrum with food and exercise obsessions.

Both extremes are unhealthy. Excessive exercise and food obsessions are not conducive to sustainable, long term results. They are generally not enjoyable and can make for a restrictive lifestyle that is difficult to maintain.

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80 20 lifestyle

The 80 20 fitness principle that I like to follow for long term results is as follows. Put in a top-notch effort 80% of the time in order to obtain the health and fitness results you desire. For the remaining 20%, don’t sweat it.

This might sound easy. Maybe you think that by allowing yourself to relax for 20% of the time that you won’t achieve the results you’re after.  The opposite is in fact true and let me explain why.

First of all, 80% of the time is a very large proportion of the time.  For every ten meals that you have, aim for eight of them to be as nourishing as possible. This means consuming meals made from whole (real!) foods. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and eggs fit into this category. This is what some people refer to as the 80 20 diet.

You’re allowed to live life!

For the remaining 20% you can allow yourself to eat in a way that doesn’t exactly follow guidelines.  When you are a healthy person who largely follows such guidelines, the 20% won’t be a full slip-up.

What do I mean by this? When you sufficiently change your lifestyle so that you eat healthily the majority of the time, you are really not going to be drawn to gorging yourself on an unhealthy fast food meal or eating a full block of chocolate.  If you are getting cravings to this degree, just keep working on healthy choices. Eventually these unhealthy binges will become a thing of the past.

Believe it or not, in time you won’t get cravings for these sorts of foods. Even if you do, once you start eating them you’ll realize that they’re making you feel sick or they just don’t taste like real food anymore.  And if by chance you do go ahead and eat something like this, you’re likely to get a sore stomach or feel low on energy later. Then you’ll probably crave the delicious healthy food you’re used to eating!

Examples of the 20%

For healthy eaters, the 20% of the time might include eating an appropriate portion size of dark chocolate rather than a whole block of Dairy Milk.  It might involve not worrying about what you will be served when you go to a friend’s house for dinner, or having a glass of wine with dinner.  And when you go to lunch, you’ll make an effort to select a healthy option but won’t stress about it if it doesn’t follow exact guidelines.

Perhaps you might have some grainy bread with a bowl of soup.  Although bread is quite a processed food usually made from refined flour, the occasional slice is not going to hurt most people, unless you are really sensitive to things like wheat or gluten.  Additionally, you can usually opt to have a less-processed grainy slice rather than a high GI slice of white bread.  Remember that these examples are for the 20% of time, not 80%!

Overall, 80 20 fitness, or the ’80 20 rule diet’ as some people call it is a great principle to go by on your quest to burn fat for good.

“Your results come from what you do most often, not what you do occasionally.”

This applies to both nutrition and exercise.

It’s a long term lifestyle

To further cement the meaning of 80 20 fitness, consider the following:

  • Eating one healthy meal or doing a two-week juice detox does not make you healthy. It will not result in long-term success with health and fat loss.  In the same way, eating one unhealthy meal or even falling off the wagon for a week or so will not have a huge impact on your health and fat loss results if you are eating well week after week, month after month, and year after year.  If you put healthy eating habits in place they become easier and easier to maintain over time.
  • Similar to the statement above, doing an exercise session from time to time or enrolling in a Bootcamp style program for a few weeks will not achieve long-term success.  Enrolling in a Bootcamp program may be a great kick-start to achieving your goals. However, you must have a plan in place to continue on with afterward if you are serious about your health and fitness.

The 80 20 diet means that you won’t feel like you’re depriving yourself of things by saying, “I can never eat that”.  In small, infrequent amounts, most foods are not going to disrupt your goals.  Instead, it is the person who tells themselves they can’t have something that later feels deprived and binges in a way that will hinder their progress.

Look at the big picture

80 20 fitness means that you don’t need to be hard on yourself if you missed a planned exercise session. Think about what you can do to make up for it over the next few days, or address the reasons behind the slip up. That way you can plan to minimize the likelihood of future slip ups. First remember to be kind to yourself and that it’s just one small day in the overall big picture.

Where to now? I’d recommend you check out some of the other blog posts in my weight loss category. Find out about the value of incidental exercise for weight loss.

The weight loss success combo explains three important factors that need to come together. Or you can learn more about adopting a holistic weight loss model. Or maybe you’re desperate to lose weight but no willpower is in sight?

If you’re interested in reading a personal real-life weight loss story, hear from Katie who lost 43 pounds without fad dieting. You’ll also want to learn about the top natural fat-burning foods that support weight loss. For more online fitness advice, try my physical fitness blog category.

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these recommended service provider links, like an insurance broker, or a travel agent, I may earn a commission – at no extra cost to you. [For my full disclosure, please see my DISCLAIMER page].

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Elly McGuinness


  1. Michaela

    Hey! Thanks for the info and for making it easy to understand!

  2. Nerissa Loeb

    We like your website, it has good information, Thanks!

  3. Anna Marie

    LOVE this, thank you for sharing!

  4. Kathleen

    This is a great article! I completely agree with the 80/20 rule although I’m sometimes more like 75/25 or 70/30 if I’m being honest with myself ?

    • Elly McGuinness

      Thanks Kathleen! Hey, 70-75% is still majority, and you need to find a balance that works for you to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I follow your instagram feed and you certainly seem to be very consistent with your amazing workouts! Keep up the fab work; you’re inspiring a lot of people:)


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