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Why 80/20 Paleo is a Recipe for Disaster

Jeremy Hendon | July 21
why 80-20 paleo is a recipe for disaster

You can call me the Paleo police or a bad person or whatever you want.  

But this needs to be said, because I hear SO many people tell me that they’re 80/20 Paleo.  And it’s a recipe for disaster.

80/20 Paleo is Completely Backwards

The term “80/20” originated (at least popularly) with a guy named Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.  He went on to develop a general principle that 80% of the effects you get come from 20% of the actions/causes.  

For instance, in business, 20% of your clients often account for 80% of your business.  

Let’s think about this in the case of diet, nutrition, and Paleo.

What you’re trying to get is 80% of the results.  You want to feel 80% as good as you would if you were 100% strict.

80-20 paleoIdeally, you can achieve that 80% of feeling better by only doing 20% of the things you would do if you were trying to be perfect.  

In Paleo, this is the opposite of what most people do.  Most people try to be “good” 80% of the time, but they end up getting perhaps 20% of the benefit.

If you’re not going to be perfect (and I’m most definitely not perfect), why wouldn’t you want to do the least work for the maximum benefit?

What’s Most Important About Paleo

Let’s take a step back for a minute.

Being Paleo is about 2 things:

1. Eating foods high in nutrients; and
2. Avoiding foods high in toxins. 


We might use a evolutionary model to get to these 2 concepts, but really, your body knows only about nutrients and toxins.

And that’s really important to remember, because most people think of 80/20 Paleo as avoiding non-Paleo foods 80% of the time.  But that’s a problem.

You Can’t Just Say that 80% of Your Meals are Paleo

Your body doesn’t really work on a meal-by-meal basis.  If you drink arsenic at one meal, it doesn’t matter that it was only one meal.

If you’re sensitive to gluten, eating it just once can lead to inflammation and other ramifications for months.  In other words, you’re not just 20% inflamed because you eat crappy food at less than 20% of your meals.

If 20% of your foods are high in toxins, then your body is most likely going to be 80% worse off (which, in the end, is really being 20/80 Paleo).

For instance, if you spend all day Saturday eating pizza, cupcakes, and donuts, that’s pretty clearly toxic.  So how much does that count for?  Does one day of cheating get you enough toxins to last you for a few months?  Quite possibly

What all this means is that eating non-Paleo foods for 20% of your meals really means that you’re not getting much of the benefit of a good diet at all.  Think about it.  Before you ever heard of Paleo, at least 30 or 40% of the foods you ate were probably Paleo, but you wouldn’t have considered yourself 30 or 40% Paleo at that time.

It’s silly.

Feeling a Little Better is Not Good Enough

Doing your version of 80/20 Paleo might make you feel better than you used to.  I know you want a pat on the back for it.

And in many cases, when people are just starting out, I give them that kind of encouragement.  But at some point you need to be honest with yourself.

You don’t actually know how much better you might feel or how much healthier you could be.  Until you spend many months (or years) getting enough nutrients and avoiding highly toxic foods, you don’t really know how much better off you could be.

Just think back to the time before you went Paleo at all.  You almost assuredly felt worse, but most days you probably didn’t think that you felt that bad.  It was only once you started feeling better that you even realized the possibility of living a better life.

Well…there’s a whole other level.  

What 80/20 SHOULD Be

If you actually want to be 80/20 Paleo, then you need to ask yourself what the 20% of most important things are.  And here are a few suggestions:

1. Always sleeping at least 8 hours.
2. Never eating gluten, processed sugar, or omega-6 seed oils.
3. Moving around more often every single day.

On the other hand, here are things I’d do to be perfect, but probably not if I were 80/20 Paleo:

1. Buying grass-fed meat
2. Buying organic vegetables.
3. Taking the right supplements and vitamins.
4. Avoiding Legumes.
5. Avoiding Pasteurized Dairy.
6. Intense Exercise.
7. Eating more organ meats.
8. Eating locally and seasonally.
9. Avoiding Rice and non-gluten containing grains.
10. Spending more time in nature.
11. Learning to de-stress.
12. Building a stronger community and social network.

Are these last 12 things good to do?  Absolutely.  Of course they are good for you.  But if you do just the first 3, you’ll get about 80% of the results of doing all 15.  

The key, though, is that you’d need to do those first 3 things 100% of the time.  That’s what 80/20 really is.  It’s doing the few things that are most important and getting most of the results.

Let’s All Be Better

I help people with diet, fitness, and health because I love feeling better and having loads more energy.  That’s something I’d love for everyone to have. 

It makes me a little bit sad to see so many people doing 80% of the work only to get 20% of the results.  Doesn’t seem to me like the best way to do things.  

I’m definitely not perfect, even with respect to the 3 things I listed above.  I’ve eaten at restaurants in the past year that I’m sure used seed oils to cook my food.  And there have been days when I sat all day long.

So perfection – even within an 80/20 framework – isn’t necessary or often possible, but it should be the goal.  At least by aiming for 80% of the results, we can hope to get a lot more than if we were aiming for just 20% of the results.

Images: Copyright (c) designer491 from Fotolia and flytoskyft11 from Fotolia

Editorial note: we deleted the first line of this post “I’m going to kick your dog.  Hard.” This was never meant to be offensive in any way – it is a turn of phrase that has nothing to do with animal cruelty. Definition of the phrase can be found here.

mable Freeman - July 21

Which first 3 ? 1. Always sleeping at least 8 hours.
2. Never eating gluten, processed sugar, or omega-6 seed oils.
3. Moving around more often every single day. Or these 3 ?

1. Buying grass-fed meat
2. Buying organic vegetables.
3. Taking the right supplements and vitamins.

Christine - July 21

I get everything you said and totally agree with it all….except why did you have to use the phrase “I’m going to kick your dog,hard”? As a dog lover,that really bothered me. Other than that great article!

    Louise Hendon - July 21

    Sorry Christine – no offense intended. It’s just a saying. Explanation of the phrase here: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=I%27m%20gonna%20kick%20my%20dog

      Christine - July 21

      Thank you for the link and clearing that up! Still don’t think I like it…but hey I’ll get over it! I agree with Jennifer, when I started Paleo I was a 80-20, however as the time went on I enjoyed the 80% much better than the 20. I call myself an occasional 1% just because I like chocolate once in awhile. I also found that my body begun to reject the 20%, I started to get very bloated and just not feeling as good as when I did the 80. I believe in baby steps first! Well,thats what worked with getting my husband to convert to paleo!????

Jennifer @ Gluten Free School - July 21

Or maybe the 80/20 rule is more about pragmatism than merely living and eating around the 20%. I think of the 20% (or an even smaller percentage) as an important piece of moving away from perfectionism and living in the real world. Though I get what you’re saying and encouraging folks to do, this can hsve very negative mental and physical reprocussions for folks with disordered eating, eating disorders and those who truly struggle with constantly feeling like they’re a failure.

I encourage clients to focus on that 80% and before you know it, the 20% shrinks naturally on its own as they come to enjoy what they are eating and how they are feeling. Plus it removes general stress people feel from having to conform so intensely to an ideal that may currently be beyond their means for a variety of real life reasons.

Just my own two cents.

    Zack - January 23

    I think this article is a little over-the-top. I did the full paleo 30 day challenge and then switched to 80/20. I feel great and enjoy eating some foods that are not ‘great’ for me.

    While true, I did not re-introduce sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup…I want to have wheat and cheese on occasion.

    What I do is for 3 meals in my week one part of it can be something that is on the ‘no’ list. So while I did enjoy some fresh salmon, I did have a piece of organic cheese with it.

    My gut is going to be just fine, the world keeps spinning and we all end up in the ground at the end of the race 😉

    Let people enjoy their rendition of the diet.

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