What does moderation really mean?

Experts weigh in on the 80/20 rule

Guest Editor:
Blair UnderwoodOn Moderation

While it may be tempting to try to eat completely clean in order to reach your goals, it's often unsustainable. “When people start limiting food groups or certain foods, they have a difficult time sticking with this solid restriction. It may last a month, but it’s not long-term,” says Amy Goodson, a sports dietitian in Dallas. “Restriction is not real life,” she says.

That's where the idea of “everything in moderation” comes in, which loosely means that you focus on nutritious fare most of the time, while still saving room for indulgences.

But there’s no formal definition of moderation as a wellness principle. Here's a couple that fit the bill: The 80/20 rule suggests eating a healthy diet 80 percent of the time and saving 20 percent for foods you love that aren’t high on the nutrition scale. Some people who want to cinch in their diet even more may go for a 90/10 mix.

One isn’t necessarily better than the other; take the approach that fits in best with your lifestyle. “If you want to maintain your weight and be fit, 80/20 is realistic,” says Goodson. Plus, planning for small splurges can help improve motivation to eat well and boost happiness so you’re better able to stick to your goals, research shows.

Andrea Rudser-Rusin, RD, at Sport Wise Nutrition & Consulting in Chicago agrees: “Moderation gives you permission to enjoy what I call yellow-light, red-light foods, which takes out the guilt,” she says. A glass of wine and a small slice of chocolate cake are good examples, respectively.

To get the 10 to 20 percent just right, follow these tips:

Know your numbers.Think about using the 20 percent over the courseof two or three meals a week and don't stress about what you're going to have. “Eat what you want but not everything you ever wanted,” says Goodson. Otherwise, the all-or-nothing approach can easily cancel out a couple days of hard work at the gym. In practice, this means eat the chips and guac without counting the number of chips when dining out with friends, or share a dessert. Order the pasta, but eat half if it's a massive portion, and hold off on the bread.

Spread it out. If you're like Underwood, you canuse the 10 to 20 percent on weekends. But if you're someone who finds it all too easy to go overboard, then you might want to consider divvying it up in meals throughout the week rather than designating an entire cheat day.

Consult your schedule. Whether it's a work event on Wednesday or a birthday party on Sunday, it's important to mentally take stock of the days that you’ll be able to easily eat a nutritious meal at home, and those where you’ll likely spend the 10 to 20 percent. “Think in advance: what does your week look like and choose where you're going to indulge wisely,” says Goodson.

Plan wisely. If you’re going to be particularly strategic about where your 10 to 20 percent goes, save it for breakfast or after a workout, says Goodson. Eat the meal in the morning and your body will use it as fuel as you go about your day. Post-workout is also prime time, as that’s when your metabolism is elevated and your body needs additional carbs and protein (even in the form of pizza with extra cheese) to facilitate recovery.

As for that 80 to 90 percent...

Highly active people may need extra calories to have energy to be productive during the day. So yes, you do have more “wiggle room” as far as total calories. Still, what you eat matters even more. “Exercise is very healthy, but it can also be inflammatory, so you need to put quality fuel in,” says Rudser-Rusin. That means it’s important to make the 80 to 90 percent portion of your diet high-quality foods that are rich in nutrients (via wholesome sources of protein, fat, and carbs) and antioxidants so your body can repair itself after a workout and prep you to tackle the next one. To get an idea of a good visual for this mix, check out Precision Nutrition's guidelines.

For our first guest editorship, Furthermore selected a partner who epitomizes the high-performance lifestyle. Blair Underwood stars in Quantico (season three premiered on April 26) and just launched a new shoe line, Right Bank Shoe Co. for Blair Underwood. He does it all—and maintains his notorious youthfulness—by eating well, staying physical, and staying emotional. He’s curated a series of articles for Furthermore (at left) that highlight his passion for balance and motion.
Photo: Claire Benoist/The Licensing Project

Be a more sustainable athlete

7 eco-friendly habits for athletes

Put pessimism to good use

Turn pessimism into a positive.