Clarifying Clean Eating: The 80/20 Principle

Clarifying Clean Eating: The 80/20 PrincipleSix years ago I was a lethargic woman who couldn’t eat anything without bloating up three waist sizes.  Sometimes it was so bad that I had to lie down to alleviate the cramps. I thought this was just normal for me: eating equaled pain. I never even considered that eating refined, overly  processed foods high in sodium, fat, and additives was causing my digestive issues.

It might seem far-fetched that I just carried on this way, but when you aren’t aware of what a truly nutritious diet looks like, you don’t put two and two together so easily.

Discovering clean eating literally changed my life. Today I’m more energetic than I was in my 20’s. As long as I follow my decision points around food most of the time, I experience symptoms only occasionally. I have such a keen awareness of my body and what foods to eat that I when I do have a flareup, I can pinpoint the cause and back off on that food. My problem isn’t due to a gluten or dairy intolerance, although I do minimize those two irritants. My issues result from eating processed foods straight out of the freezer, cans, and boxes. It results from frequent meals out.

When my clients focus on clean eating in appropriate portions, they lose weight for the long term.


That’s why I’m passionate about sharing the clean eating lifestyle – it has the potential to change your life and weight forever more.

What is Clean Eating?

There’s so much crap out there slamming clean eating as rigid. This might be due to the fact that clean eating has traditionally been associated with a bodybuilder’s diet. Or is it just the need to disparage another style of eating one doesn’t understand? Whatever the reason, naysayers are annoying as hell, especially when they say they’re “flexible dieters” as if it’s some kind of different, superior way of eating.

Iin reality, my style of clean eating is the exact same thing as what others call “flexible dieting.” So why don’t I just call it flexible dieting? Because I’m damn stubborn. I’m also unapologetic about being a “clean eater” because clean eating isn’t rigid – it’s simply eating foods closest to their natural state. That’s it.

We can break down the concepts of how to do this using a few principles, which I’ll talk about here an in upcoming posts.

The 80/20 Principle

I like calling this a principle instead of a “rule,” because it is a way of life I choose.

When my weight-loss clients are first starting out, it’s common to hear comments about feeling ashamed or frustrated because of “falling off the wagon” diet-wise. We tend to think we need to be perfect and if we’re not, it’s our job to either feel bad or avoid the subject altogether. But beating yourself up doesn’t help you get you to your goal – you need a way to enjoy food without feeling guilty.

I always encourage an attitude of self-love and forgiveness, but more importantly, I teach that very few of us can or want to eat perfectly 100% of the time. Sure, competitors or those driven to be super lean need to eat perfect all the time, but if you’re content to be at 22-26% body fat, you don’t have to.

That’s where the 80/20 principle comes in – eating clean 80% of the time and leaving the other 20% for special occasions, dates, parties – life. That means no guilt, self-flagellation, or “backsliding.” It provides structure and a goal to strive for while giving you choices.


What situations fall into the 20% category? You have to make your own decision points – automatic, comfortable behaviors you fall back on. We all know about negative automatic behaviors – grabbing a bag a chips when you’re stressed, for example. But you can also have positive ones. I call these decision points.

20% of the time means:

  • Eating desserts/processed carbs less than 3x per week (in small portions). If your special occasions are more frequent than this or you indulge in cravings every night, you’re not following the 80/20 principle. If you have several special occasions in a week – a coworker’s birthday, date night, and a holiday, for example – you need ways of handing these situations. One way I teach my clients strategies for rocking the 80/20 principle is by using micro-goals – tiny lifestyle modifications that result in habit changes over the long term.
  • When you have no control over what you eat. Eating at someone else’s house or when there are absolutely no other choices might warrant that 20%. But strategies like eating something beforehand, watching portions, and drinking more water are things you need to have in your back pocket if you’re serious about weight loss and ultimate health. If you repeatedly say that you have no control over what you eat because someone else does the shopping or cooking, you need to examine whether you’re really committed to eating better.

I’ll keep the dialogue going in my next post about clean eating. How has clean eating changed your life?

This article originally appeared on

11 thoughts on “Clarifying Clean Eating: The 80/20 Principle

  1. Clean eating “dialed it in” for me. I lost weight initially with portion control. When I focused on the quality as well as quantity I started to feel healthy and create the shape I really wanted. I like how I feel when I give my body the best. I enjoy my 20% on vacation or holidays but I am always happy to come back to the regular foods that keep me strong and feeling amazing!


  2. I still struggle with sweets, but there are certain things that I’ve managed to get out of my life completely (soda!!!) by just deciding that that wasn’t something that I wanted to be in my body when I was working so hard to exercise and keep it healthy.


  3. In general, I agree with the ideas behind clean eating, so no objections there. I think where I get hung up is with the name itself–“clean eating”. What does this imply for anyone who doesn’t follow this food pattern? Is their diet dirty or otherwise sullied somehow? Maybe, maybe not. I get where the moniker comes from, but there’s just this hubris in the self-applied term that grates on me. It’s the same sort of thing as when Richard Dawkins started calling all of his followers “brights”–because apparently anyone who doesn’t agree with him is dim? (He probably really does believe this.)


  4. When I am eating clean I always feel better, my stomach issues disappear and so do my migraines. I like your 80/20 principle because it works!! We cannot deprive ourselves but I also find when I am eating clean I do not crave those extra treats as much! Now if I could just get back on track!


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