Thursday, March 18, 2010

How the 80/20 Rule Applies to Cheat Days and Appearance

 Note: The box to the right is an anonymous way of asking for certain topics to be covered here. This is a post in response to someone's request. 
Ice cream. I find it hard to believe that there's even one person out there that doesn't enjoy ice cream. Personally, I love it, but it's always surprising to co-workers and family when they hear I eat ice cream. "I thought you always ate healthy!" "Aren't you the meat man?" (Yes, I have literally been called the "meat man" by more than one person) "But Chris, aren't you being a hypocrite by telling people about healthy eating and then you go ahead and eat ice cream?" Controversial dairy issue aside, no I don't think I'm being a hypocrite because my mantra has always been "Everyone's needs are different." And that brings up the 80/20 rule.

People always ask about "cheat days" and "cheat meals." Times when you go ahead and have that ice cream sundae or bowl of pasta. Most folks want to know how often or how much to have. To be honest, it's completely up to you, but if you really want a guideline, go by the 80/20 rule.  If you are eating clean 80% of the time, you're doing pretty darn good! Ideally, you are striving to eat clean 100% of the time, with the realization that life can be hectic/out of your control and you might deviate 20% of the time. This is NOT permission for you to plan on 20% of your week eating junk. This is more of a "if your mother-in-law offers you homemade cake, you're going to eat a piece instead of lecturing her on the downsides of sugar and grains because you don't want to feel the wrath of your spouse later." Or if you're out with friends and feel like having a beer, go ahead. Now, some people do plan their cheat meals ahead of time: "If I get to the end of the week, I'll reward myself with sweets." I'm not a huge fan of this, but for some people it works. The reason I'm not a fan is that your motivation for being "good" should not be rewarded with "bad" food; the motivation should be something sustainable. I'd rather eat as best I can when I'm in control and have the freedom to deviate if I'm out with friends or at a family function. In other words, I'm not going to have a gallon pint of ice cream around waiting for me to eat them on a Friday afternoon. If I have it around the house, chances are I will be sneaking it during the week and justify that it's "part of the 20%."

Also, don't call it "cheating." Cheating makes you feel like a bad person and this is counterproductive. Feeling guilty about what you eat will just keep you feeling bad. Instead, eat/drink with a purpose. If I'm out with friends and I want to feel the effects of alcohol, I'm going to drink. If I'm going to have a coffee, it's for the caffeine. As Dutch Lowy says, 
"First of all, let's talk about why I do the things I do. I drink coffee black for the caffeine. I drink tequila on the rocks for the alcohol. I eat beef, barely cooked and with little seasoning for the nourishment. I lift heavy weights so I can be strong."
Or, as Chris Kresser says, "It's better to eat the wrong foods with the right attitude than the right foods with the wrong attitude." 

On the flip side, there are times when you should be 100% clean. If you really want to see dramatic results by cutting out grains, sugars, etc. then do it with 100% compliance for at least 30 days. Melissa and Dallas of Whole9 recommend this 100% compliance, as do a lot of other folks. The reason is that you need to let your body and gut "reset" and the only way to do this is with no "cheating." Just ask anyone that has done this and they will tell you the dramatic results. Your taste buds will literally change and your cravings for Hershey Kisses and rolls will disappear. Once you do, then you may consider going to the 80/20 rule. Other instances of 100% might be related to health or performance. If you are celiac, then of course you should avoid gluten 100%. (Some would argue everyone should avoid gluten 100%) If you are a professional athlete, your job is to perform at the top of your game. You should decide how importance fuel is to you.

The 80/20 rule also applies to appearance. 80% of how you look will come from your DIET, and 20% will come from stuff you do at the gym. I think it's crazy that people will do hundreds of "crunches" for that six-pack, but will not do anything about their diet. I'm willing to bet most people have that six-pack, but it's hard to see under body fat. Figure out what your goals are and how hard you're willing to work toward those goals. If you stick with it, you'll get there in no time. As the saying goes, "Great abs are made in the gym, but revealed in the kitchen." 

UPDATE 6/18/12: For me, the 80/20 rule has evolved. I used to drink beer socially, but my body has rejected it more and more over time. Liquid gluten is not my friend. And while I can get away with having bread or pasta and not feeling deleterious effects, my intellectual side keeps me away from those things 99% of the time. If I decide to have something non "paleo" I might have corn tortillas or chips, and the aforementioned ice cream. (not together) I found what works for me and that's what you should do too.

-don't hurt someone's feelings by turning down food you might deem "off the grid." Now, I'm also not against bringing your own food or letting people know ahead of time of your food preferences, but if something is sprung upon you like a surprise birthday cake, don't start lecturing. Use your noggin.
-don't buy junk in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind.
-if you're going to have chocolate, have over 85% cacao as it contains less sugar the higher percentage you have. (100% is pretty bitter, just warning you)
-if you drink, stick with things like tequila, other hard alcohols, or red wine
-don't have a cheat DAY. I think this is too long and will just make you feel like crud afterwards. Consider a meal or even part of a meal. Remember, make it meaningful.

Other people on "cheating":

Do you have rules like 80/20 or something different? What do you think about cheat meals?


  1. Thanks Chris for posting this. I really appreciate your very realistic point of view on nutrition! You make it sound more do-able to eat clean when you don't make it sound so strict. I am gearing up for a 30 day challenge!

  2. Thanks, really great Chris. I also enjoyed the links to the whole 9 on the subject. its all about being CONSCIOUS. Making choices and embracing them!

  3. Interesting article. I eat clean most of the time. Eating 100% Paleo 90% of the time allows me the freedom to feel like I can splurge during social events. For instance, I know when I go to my mother-in-law's house on Friday, I will eat whatever delicious thing she has whipped up (with a smile) and drink wine. (I don't eat the bread or cheese on the antipasta plate, but I don't pick stuff out of the main dish or refuse dessert.) If my husband decides to make a pie, I'll eat it and enjoy it. I like being able to splurge for fun!

    Although, I wonder if I am encouraging people to eat junk? Do they look and me and think, "If that fit person can eat chocolate cake with ice cream, then it's OK for me to eat it every day!"?


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