July 23, 2021. The day that I wrote the ‘3 Reasons Why Flexible Dieting May Be Your Last Diet’ article. Obviously, I was chemically altered because howthefuckelse I would have written such a great article? Which, I hope, steered some of you into a healthier relationship with food.

One part of the article seriously limited the size of my circle of clean-eating-all-day-err-day friends. I said:

Flexible dieting follows the 80/20 rule. Around 80% of your food choices should come from whole, minimally processed foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc. The rest can come from less nutritious foods (and there’s no reason to beat yourself up for it).

I followed it up with this infographic (because I heard something about people memorizing visual information better):

the 80/20 rule and flexible dieting

But today, for no reason that I can attach a rational explanation to, my brain went ‘Hey, Egis, do you even know where that 20% allowance came from?’ As I mentioned before, at the time of writing the flexible dieting article I was chemically altered so I just rolled with the 80/20 number because all flexible dieting books and articles said the number was legit.

But today, I was in an investigative mood so I found out where the 20% allowance originated from.

In 2005, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) used the term “discretionary calorie allowance” in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I’ll quote the authors directly:

Discretionary Calorie Allowance—the balance of calories remaining in a person’s energy allowance after accounting for the number of calories needed to meet recommended nutrient intakes through consumption of foods in low­fat or no added sugar forms. The discretionary calorie allowance may be used in selecting forms of foods that are not the most nutrient­dense (e.g., whole milk rather than fat­free milk) or maybe addi­tions to foods (e.g., salad dressing, sugar, butter).

The authors continued:

<…> Individuals who eat nutrient-dense foods may be able to meet their recommended nutrient intake without consuming their full calorie allotment. The remain­ing calories—the discretionary calorie allowance—allow individuals flexibility to consume some foods and beverages that may contain added fats, added sugars, and alcohol.

Discretionary calorie allowance in the USDA Food Guide amounts to 10-20% of total daily caloric intake. If the remaining 80-90% of your diet comes from whole and minimally processed foods, you will get enough vitamins and minerals a.k.a nutrients to promote health.

So unlike many many things that keto zealots with bean-sized brains tell us about nutrition, the 20% recommendation is legit. Of course, as I said in the flexible dieting article, you don’t have to spend discretionary calories if you don’t want to because, with flexible dieting, YOU make decisions rather than blindly follow arbitrary rules:

<…> 20% is just an option available to you. You’re not required to “spend” them on junk food if you don’t want to. It just means you have a “budget” for it as long as most of your diet is on point and your calories are controlled.

The reason I urge you to include (guilt-free) some of these indulgence foods in your diet is that research consistently shows that flexible dieters are more successful at maintaining a healthier body weight than rigid dieters. That’s sort of a “well duh” statement because it’s a lot easier to sustain a diet that doesn’t leave you anxious that you’re doing something wrong or ruining your progress by having a glass of wine at your wife’s birthday party.

It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to eat “clean” (whatever that means) all the time. So go for the 80/20 rule. Bring some flexibility into your diet. Have some pizza, enjoy it, and then continue eating whole foods most of the time.

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Originally published by me on Medium on September 21, 2022

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