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The good news: Cutting out your favourite indulgent foods may not be the best way to get healthy. According to Tristaca Curley, a registered dietitian based in Kelowna, B.C., having an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition will take the best of us down. Instead, she suggests taking the 80/20 approach to food.
Unlike most diets, 80/20 is a realistic, non-restrictive approach to eating that still allows you to enjoy your favourite foods and eat out on occasion.
The premise of the 80/20 rule is this: of the five food-related decisions (read: two snacks and three meals) you’re making on any given day, four of those choices should be based on fueling your body with the nutrition it needs to thrive, such as a hearty grain bowl for breakfast or a veggie-packed lentil stew for dinner.
Whole grains, such as quinoa, are a great way to start the day on a healthy note. Try our Breakfast Quinoa Bowl. Photo: Ryan Brook.
Your fifth choice can be a treat, such as enjoying a freshly baked cupcake, or ordering pizza for dinner after having a healthy lunch.
It’s far from a new concept—nutritionists have been recommending the balanced approach to eating for years—but it’s been gaining traction thanks to the PBS documentary “In Defense of Food”, in which food writer Michael Pollan coined his manifesto for healthy eating: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”
Food magazine Bon Appétit joined in the discussion, too, dedicating their January 2016 issue to eating what they call "healthy-ish"—the idea that you should strike a balance between good and good-for-you food.
Because 80/20 is a lifestyle rather than a diet, it can take a bit of time and effort to incorporate into your day-to-day routine. Here are our top tips for making it work for you.
Cook more often
There’s no need to deprive yourself of your favourite foods—doing so makes you more likely to cave into cravings and fall completely off the healthy bandwagon. Instead, try making the food you’re craving from scratch rather than ordering it from takeout. That way, you can control what goes into the dish, adding less fat or sodium and more healthy ingredients.
Craving Pad Thai? Skip the takeout and make it at home , instead! Photo: Jeff Coulson.
Sneak in more fruits and vegetables
This can be especially difficult in colder months, when hearty and indulgent foods tend to reign supreme, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also include healthy ingredients. Our Slow Cooker Mushroom Barley Risotto is an easy way to balance healthy eating with a classic comfort food. Snacks can be as simple as carrot sticks and broccoli florets paired with a tasty hummus. In the summer, make a point of hitting up a farmers’ market once a week and fill your basket with local, in-season fruits and veggies. You can also try going meatless once a week.
Looking for meatless recipes? Click here for our favourite vegetarian meals, such as this Sautéed Mushroom Linguine. Photo: Jeff Coulson.
Make it a lifestyle
The 80/20 approach to eating isn’t a diet, so don’t get caught up in whether or not you’re seeing weight-loss results. Focus instead on making small changes to your everyday meals and snacks.
“Research shows that the people who achieve their goals do it slowly but surely,” says Curley. “But we don’t often take that approach when it comes to our lifestyle.”
The key to incorporating healthy-ish eating into your lifestyle is to make it enjoyable. Plan your meals around the foods that you like—don’t force yourself to eat kale if you’re really not into it, and don’t bother packing a cold lettuce salad for lunch if there’s nothing in it that appeals to you.
“When it comes to [healthy] meal planning, a lot of people think of it in terms of salads,” admits Curley. But that doesn’t have to mean boring. Try a filling grain-based salad, or add protein, such as chicken, shrimp or lean steak, to your regular salad to make it more filling and enjoyable.
Adding grains and protein to salads, such as in this Warm Lentil Salad With Shrimp, makes you more likely to eat your greens. Photo: Jeff Coulson.
Check in with yourself
Take a few minutes each week to see how you’re doing and assess how you’re feeling. If you don’t think you’re doing enough, pinpoint how you can make healthier choices easier going forward.
“Reevaluate your goals and you’ll see what is or isn’t working,” says Curley. The fix could be something as simple as signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which makes it easier for you to eat whole foods by delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to your door each week.
Don’t get us wrong—being healthy-ish isn’t an excuse to eat whatever you want. You’re going to have to say no to cravings sometimes—in fact, many times—in order to ensure that the majority of your food intake is healthy. But Curley says focusing on what you’re gaining will get you closer to achieving your goal.
“Monetary rewards work well,” Curley explains. “When you achieve your goal at the end of a week, set aside a certain amount of money and after three months, use it to buy something indulgent for you.”
Try putting the money you’d normally spend on buying takeout for lunch every day into a jar at home; when you have enough saved up, treat yourself to a nice dinner out with friends.
And of course, recognizing intrinsic rewards, including having more energy throughout the day and feeling more confident with yourself, is just as important.