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.
Ideally, 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.
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.
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.