Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

80/20 Eating

by Andre · 14 Comments

I normally don’t suggest things I haven’t tried for long, but I’m too encouraged by the results to let this pass without comment. A few days ago I had lunch at Phillippe in downtown Los Angeles (the best sandwich shop in God’s country). Whenever I eat there, my self-discipline invariably goes out the window, and I find myself devouring enough to regret it immediately afterwards.

I ordered my usual French Dip, a bowl of clam chowder and a slice of chocolate cream pie. As soon as I set the tray down on the table, I found myself looking at the volume of food I was about to eat with different eyes. My intuition was raising a red flag against the act of hyperconsumption I was about to commit.

Staring at the food for a moment longer, a question suddenly came to mind.

What 20% of this would give me 80% of the satisfaction?

I wound up eating perhaps more than 20%, but well below half. I ate the full (small) bowl of clam chowder, less than half of the sandwich, and four forkfulls of the pie. I put the rest in a box, and repeated the process at home. It took me four days to finish a meal that I would have ordinarily pounded away in one sitting.

I’ve started doing this with everything I eat and drink now, and I not only have more energy when I’m finished, but the act of eating is more enjoyable. It’s not the mathematical proportion that matters. 80/20 is an arbitrary ratio in this context, and could just as easily be 50/50 or 90/10. What matter is the fact that I’m forced to pay attention to what I’m eating in relation to a standard of fulfillment, not consumption.

Like most Americans, I was raised to finish everything on my plate. This ethic carries a number of unexamined assumptions:

  • Everything on a plate is worth eating
  • The size of the plate is appropriate to the amount of food we actually need
  • The plate needs to be loaded
  • Food left on the plate is “wasted,” as opposed to turning to excess fat if eaten
  • “Full” meals are served on plates, as opposed to bowls, skewers or napkins

The 20% Not-to-Eat list

While I’ve only been applying the Pareto (80/20) principle to individual meals for less than a week, I’ve had more experience with a different application. Last December, I decided to lose some weight. Being too lazy to maintain a real diet, I asked myself, “What are the 20% of foods that are causing 80% of my excess weight?”

It took about three minutes to realize that they fell into two categories: candy and pastries. I was surprised by how simple it was to drop these from my eating routine (Phillipe being the one and only exception), since I usually ate them to alleviate boredom anyway. Sometimes resisting the urge took a little emotional effort, but the alternative of counting calories or carbs would have taken much more. I always prefer making things easier before applying more effort.

Within two days, I noticed that my stomach no longer exerted pressure against my belt, and within two weeks, I noticed that I had to keep pulling my pants up. In six weeks I lost 11 pounds, with nothing to analyze or track.

The great thing about 80/20 analyses is that they apply at any level. If you’ve already eliminated candy and pastries, your 20% might be dairy products and meat. Whatever it is, it’s usually something that’s obvious once you focus on it as an issue.

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  • jkahanNo Gravatar // Jun 27, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Even if you just cut 20% off of your normal portion size, without analyzing which food is most fattening, you will at a minimum be cutting your normal caloric intake by 20%. Even if this does not show a significant improvement, it will still be improvement none the less.

    An easy way to look at it; leave 20% of what is on your plate there. If you can’t get over the “wasted food/starving children in Africa” American guilt, then get the remainder to go and give it to a homeless person.

  • wireheadNo Gravatar // Jun 28, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Hrm, I have been unable to manage to lose weight by cutting foods out of my diet… but the idea of eating the 20-50% of the plate that will make you feel full and content has paid off well.

    The way I see things, the best way to counter the usual American plate-clearing habit is to make ruthless use of the fridge. The cafeteria at work has a pasta plate. I can easily finish off the whole plate and then get the munchies around four. Or I can keep about 25-50% of the food for around four when I’ll get the munchies regardless… and then I’ll have maybe a handful of food at dinnertime.

  • veredNo Gravatar // Jun 29, 2008 at 4:52 am

    “What matter is the fact that I’m forced to pay attention to what I’m eating in relation to a standard of fulfillment, not consumption.” This is a brilliant observation, and can work in other areas as well – i.e., excessive or recreational shopping.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jul 2, 2008 at 5:37 am

    @jkahan: True, any reduction is an improvement. I should stress the the 80/20 ratio is arbitrary. When you eat out, at least in the US, the portions that are served are usually large enough to make eating a much smaller portion of them realistic. At home, we tend to serve ourselves portions much closer to what we have an appetite for, so your 20% reduction makes more sense.

    @wirehead: Totally agree with the refrigerator suggestion. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten over myself and started reheating stuff. I’ve gone three or four days on what I used to woof down in one sitting.

    @vered: It definitely generalizes to other areas. Consumption of any kind is ripe for self-examination.

  • Heidi from Savory TvNo Gravatar // Sep 16, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Great post. One thing that always helps me at home is to always serve food on a smaller plate (ie a sandwich plate). The portions remain smaller this way!

    Heidi from Savory Tv’s last blog post: Cast Iron, why you should cook with a cast iron skillet and how to care for it

  • ThomasNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Still a great example of how the 80/20 principle is powerful.

    That’s true restaurant’s portion in America are too big and you need to reeducate yourself. I remember when I first came to the US every time a server brought me a plate I was telling myself: “Wooow it’s huge I’m not gonna finish it…”. Six months later I finished all my plate easily. :)
    Now I bring box to my house as much as possible and don’t try to finish all my plate.

    btw I like Heidi tips: use smaller plate at home to get smaller portion.

  • Uncle BNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    I am a diabetic . . . nuff said!

  • KieferNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    If you want to live a long and healthy life you need to consume a proper diet. And contrary to what most people think this requires you to eat, especially if you want to loose weight and keep it off.

    Your concept is a good start; it shows you are mentally taking that first step. Eating less bad foods will only help for so long, this is why diets fail.

    If you truly want to change your future health this will require a little more of a plan.

    Stop by and visit if you want to know more.

  • Thin & FullNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Here’s a tip for eating at a restaurant:
    Ask for a take home box at the same time as ordering. When you get your meal, immediately put half of it into the box and set it aside. Finish your meal at your leisure.

    Many good things happen as a result of this action. First, you actually feel physically good, as opposed to overstuffed and miserable, after your meal. Second, you feel triumphant about your control. Third, you get a thrill because you feel like you’ve gotten a great bargain because…Fourth, you now have a second meal for the price and dont have to figure out what’s for dinner or lunch tomorrow!

  • redsoxmaniacNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    It’s so true and you can take this further and slow down your eating and you will even lose more. You will be full on half the food, if you slow down

  • RayNo Gravatar // Dec 12, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Well, it’s pretty simple. Fat is disgusting. You must do everything possible to reduce. I suggest my 80/80 plan as a much smarter alternative…cut 80% of your calories immediately and increase your exercise by 80%. You should be able to lose all of your fat weight in a few months. Once you reach a goal weight – 100 lbs is a good goal for a 5’11″ man – then eat under 1000 calories per day. If you gain any back, immediately repeat the 80/80 plan.

  • DebbieNo Gravatar // Dec 12, 2008 at 9:21 am

    I agree that there are some brilliant observations here, and I intend to try to incorporate them into my eating habits. I, too, have the habit of eating sweets out of habit or boredom.

    As far as the large servings of food at restaurants, I have my own solution, but it only works with certain friends and family members. Some people see it as cheap or stingy and do not appreciate the beauty of it. My mother and I routinely split one meal when we go out, as do my best friend and I. There is almost always enough food for two, and we get full at half the price. It should be noted, however, that I always tip the server enough to cover two meals.

  • MalloryNo Gravatar // Dec 12, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Restaurant portions can be huge – especially pasta. One thing you can sometimes do is order a starter as a main, or a ‘starter sized’ portion. Otherwise it can be easy to just keep nibbling as long as there’s food on the plate – especially if other people are still eating, or you’re chatting at the table.

    If you’re a compulsive nibbler, try ordering a side salad with dressing on the side. After you’ve eaten ‘enough’ of your main, switch to the side salad, and pick at that.

  • BrianNo Gravatar // Jan 11, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    80/20 can be the solution to a lot of things. I’ve used these principles at work quite often. I am now going to try it with what I eat.