The 80-20 Diet

Blog #42    Andrew Siegel, M.D.

The Pareto Principle (also known as the “80–20 rule”) states that, for many circumstances, approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.  He also observed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.  It is a common precept that 80% of sales come from 20% of clients.  In my urology practice, 80% of my challenges come from 20% of my patients.

I have adapted the 80-20 rule as a general recommendation as to how to eat: essentially this means 80% healthy and the other 20% not so healthy.  By healthy, I am talking about a balanced diet with sufficient intake of quality macronutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and avoidance of excessive calories.  This means real food: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, etc.  By non-healthy, I mean…well, you know what is not healthy…fast food, junk food, processed food, French fries, pizza, cheeseburgers, candy, sweetened beverages, Cinnabon’s, doughnuts, pepperoni and salami, etc., etc.

Truth be told, my diet is probably closer to 90-10 or 85-15.  But if you can do an 80-20, then you are doing well.   My diet has a strong Mediterranean accent to it, so, for example, my dinner might consist of wild salmon on top of whole-grain pasta with a large, colorful salad and a piece of whole grain bread (although I must admit that some of the time it is not whole grain).  As a beverage I may just have one glass of wine or beer or, alternatively, plain or sparkling water with a piece of lemon or lime squeezed in.  For dessert, perhaps a dark chocolate-covered biscotti with a cup of herbal tea.

I love my carbs and sweets just as much as anyone else.  I just don’t like to drink calories, so I gave up sodas a few years ago and have never looked back.  I used to be a big fan of diet sodas, but gave them up as well…who needs artificial color, flavor and sweetener?  Most of the time, I drink good old water.  If I am going to drink calories, it is usually in the form of alcohol, in moderate amounts.

An occasional cookie, brownie, ice cream, piece of cake, pecan pie, etc., is not going to kill you or me, and does feel really good. There are certain foods that I find simply irresistible: prune hamentashen, crumb cake from B & W bakery, Carvel chocolate ice cream cake with crunchies, and a black raspberry “strong man” sundae (homemade black raspberry ice cream, hot fudge, shaved chocolate and whipped cream) at Baumgarten’s café.  These are all “20% foods” that I do eat, on occasion.  When I indulge, I do not feel good about my health, but the pleasure factor balances that out and knowing that it is just a small deviation and that I will get right back on track makes it okay.

Avoiding all unhealthy foods requires amazing discipline and the deprivation often will backfire, resulting in over-indulgence at a later time.  So I like to use a tactic that I refer to as vaccination/inoculationMany of us are accustomed to getting vaccinated and inoculated with a small dose of virus or bacteria to prevent an infection at a later date. The same concept can apply to eating.   Indulge with a small piece, a modest but satisfying and gratifying taste—a vaccination if you will—a small dose that will avoid depriving ourselves and prevent us from coming down with the disease—the obesity disease.  Just exercise moderation and don’t overdo it.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food

FYI: One of my favorite “power snacks” that I sometimes eat mid-morning and which keeps me well-fueled until lunch:  6 ounces or so of non-fat yogurt (Greek yogurt is the best); add one ounce of raw oatmeal, a few raw almonds, (7 for purposes of the nutritional count that follows), sweeten with one pack of stevia, mix together and you have one awesomely delicious snack, moderate in calories, protein-packed, chock full of good fats and fiber and best of all, it is downright healthy for you, definitely in the “80% foods”!

Calories: 180, Protein: 12.5 grams, Unsaturated fat: 4 grams,  Saturated Fat: 0.4 grams, Carbs: 23 grams, Fiber: 2 grams

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