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Applying the 80/20 Rule to Nutrition & Fitness

P90X and Insanity Nutrition: The 80/20 Rule | by Dave Ward of

P90X and Insanity Nutrition: The 80/20 Rule | by Dave Ward of

How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Fitness & Nutrition

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 Rule? It comes from Tony Horton and it’s based on the premise that perfection isn’t attainable. However, if you commit to nailing 80%, you can cut yourself a break on the remaining 20%.

The 80/20 Rule can be applied to a number of situations. In business, it essentially means that 80% of your results come from 20% of your activity. It is a way to get people to focus on what they are doing that actually works and stop wasting time.

If we’re talking about nutrition, it means that 80% of your week’s meals are on point—with healthy whole foods, like lean proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, fruits and whole grains—and 20% can be cheats (preferably with a snack, not a meal).

If we’re talking about fitness, it means you’re nailing 80% of your workouts and cutting yourself a break on the other 20%.

The rule has slightly different applications in fitness and nutrition, so let’s break each down.

Applying the 80/20 Rule to Nutrition

Fitness is very important, but nutrition is about 75% of the weight loss and general health equation. You can work out like a maniac and still be overweight and less than optimally healthy, so you’re doing yourself a huge disservice by ignoring nutrition.

As I mentioned above, the 80/20 Rule with nutrition means that 80% of what you eat is healthy whole foods that fall within the macronutrient ratios laid out by the eating plan included with your program and 20% can be outside of that range.

Very few people can eat 100% clean, so this leeway makes your plan attainable. However, the farther you get away from healthy whole foods, the less success you’ll have.

I know there are going to be foods on your healthy eating plan that you just don’t like. I strongly encourage you to try new foods, but it’s fine to do that in phases. Start off with the healthy foods you’re familiar with and add new ones as you can handle it.

Also, understand that, initially, you may respond to the effects of an addiction to sugar. Our modern diet is way too high in sugar and other forms of refined carbohydrates. Combine that with the fact that sodium is added to nearly every processed food and you have a recipe for a serious addiction to unhealthy foods. Be patient with yourself as you break these addictions.

The 80% Foods

This is what you want to eat 80% of the time!

  • Fresh fruit & vegetables
  • Eggs
  • Fish (preferably cold water and avoid farmed fish)
  • Chicken or turkey breast (organic, skinless; no deli meats with added chemicals, flavorings or sugar)
  • Veggie burgers
  • Tofu or tempeh
  • Shakeology
  • Lowfat yogurt
  • Lowfat cheeses
  • Oatmeal
  • Wild rice
  • Hummus
  • Fresh salsa (WITHOUT added sugars or preservatives)
  • Tomato sauce (WITHOUT sugar)
  • Garlic
  • Nuts (especially almonds)
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole grain tortillas
  • Flaxseed
  • Lowfat milk (if you do dairy) and/or nut milk (if you don’t)
  • Black or green tea
  • Vinegar
  • Water

The 20% Foods

Stay out of this neighborhood as much as possible!

  • Alcohol
  • Fatty meats
  • Heavy sauces
  • Chips
  • French fries, onion rings, etc.
  • Fried foods
  • Processed breads, donuts, etc.
  • Fast food
  • Pizza

While fast food appears in the 20% section, I would strongly encourage you to avoid it completely…for the rest of your life, if possible. I think we can all commit to avoiding fast food for 90 days. If you do this, you’ll create a habit that will serve you well for the rest of your life. There are far too many reasons to do this than I can list here.

Of course, these lists are less than exhaustive. If your common sense is engaged, it’s pretty clear what foods are good and not for you.

Here’s a video where I discuss my thoughts on nutrition and what works for me. Everyone needs to tailor their nutrition plan to their fitness goals, but these are some general rules that I think work:

Check out my post on what I believe are the foundations of a healthy diet—6 Healthy Eating Tips to Help you Lose Weight. These are just my thoughts based on my experiences and my experiments with several different nutrition plans (not “diets”), beginning with the P90X Nutrition Guide.

The bottom line—try to make at least 80% of the foods you eat be healthy whole foods, so the other 20% won’t hurt you too much. If your diet isn’t particularly good at this time, applying the 80/20 Rule will be a HUGE improvement.

Applying the 80/20 Rule to Fitness

Let’s look at how to apply the 80/20 Rule to fitness—for instance, to programs like P90XInsanity and LIIFT4.

There’s no question these workouts are intense and a lot of people want to know how to get the most out of these programs when they have busy schedules.

If you hit 100% of the workouts in whatever program you’re doing, you’ll have outstanding results. If you can do that, then by all means do it. But, for many people, this is not really a realistic or unattainable goal.

If I have limited time and it comes down to my workout or an event for one of my kids, the kids are going to win every time.

Does this mean I shouldn’t bother to commit to a structured workout program? NO.

Does it mean I should give up on the program because I missed a workout? Absolutely not.

We have to be reasonable with our time and with ourselves. When applied to fitness, the 80/20 Rule essentially means that we need to make sure we get an absolute minimum of 80% of our scheduled workouts done.

If you’re doing P90X, there are 78 scheduled workouts and 12 rest days. If you do 80% of those workouts, that puts you at 63 workouts and 27 rest days.

Compare this to your current level of activity. I bet it’s significantly better. If not, then by all means, set your bar higher—say to 90/10. If you’re not, use the 80/20 Rule as your benchmark.

Am I telling you to slack off? No.

Am I saying that you’ll get the same results as someone that does 100% of the workouts? No.

Am I trying to give you a strategy to set yourself up for success with a program that can set in motion changes that will stick with you long after it’s over and preferably for the rest of your life? Absolutely.

Are you ready to follow the 80/20 Rule?

Understand that the goal of the 80/20 rule is to help you be successful.

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t strive for 100% of your workouts and perfect adherence to your nutrition plan of choice. We’re also not saying that you’ll get the very best results on any program if you do less than 100%.

We look at healthy fitness and nutrition as a LIFESTYLE, not as a temporary occurrence. And, we all know that life happens, so there’s no need to beat yourself up or give up because you’re not perfect.

Trust me, if you can complete a program like P90X, Insanity, LIIFT4 or any other of Beachbody’s workouts while following the 80/20 Rule, you’re going to make HUGE strides towards adopting an incredibly healthy lifestyle.

If you want FREE help applying the 80/20 Rule to your life, please feel free to contact us and be sure and check out our coaching program:

Get FREE Fitness & Nutrition Coaching!


Author: Dave

Father, retired attorney, cyclist (road & track), skier, surfer, recovered triathlete, half of a dynamic coaching team and co-founder of the Fit Club Network. Living my passion as an entrepreneur helping people achieve their fitness and financial goals.

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