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Study: Indulging in Your Favorite Foods Can Help Boost Weight Loss — Here’s How

You don't have to give up your favorite foods to improve your health!

Women around the world are indulging in their favorite treats at this very moment – and shedding spare pounds at the same time. How is that possible? Credit goes to the 80/20 diet, a trick that has everyone from Hollywood diet gurus to Harvard docs buzzing. “I’ve been so impressed with how well the strategy works, I use it myself,” reveals popular nutrition expert Kellyann Petrucci, ND, who routinely ‘prescribes’ the rule. “It keeps you feeling great and moving toward your goals but also makes room for cocoa by the fire or a slice of Grandma’s apple pie.” Keep reading to learn how the 80/20 diet works, plus how you can reap the benefits without giving up your favorite indulgences.

What is the 80/20 diet?

The gist of the 80/20 diet is simple: 80% of what you eat is healthy and slimming; the other 20% is what you love. But how do you know what healthy and slimming foods to start with, and what if you don’t like what’s on the menu outside of the 20% splurge window? You’re in for a pleasant surprise, as you can choose any good-for-you eating plan. The key is picking a routine you’ll actually stick with 80% of the time, says Harvard obesity expert and 80/20 fan Angela Fitch, MD. Some women count carbs; others count calories. (Click through to learn how counting calories on the Mediterranean diet boosts results.)

Dr. Kellyann recommends using a Paleo-style diet with no math required — you just build all meals with lean protein, healthy fats and low-starch plant foods. Go for whatever option appeals to you most and best suits your life.

And no matter the direction you head for your 80%, your 20% will be the same. “Keep portions reasonable,” says Dr. Kellyann, “and nothing is off-limits.” You might have a small dessert and a glass of wine nightly. Or you may watch what you eat on weekdays and dig into pizza and party fare on the weekend. Your splurges won’t slow weight loss. In fact, they’ll likely speed your progress. (Click through to learn how to combat common weight loss side effects.)

How the 80/20 diet reduces cravings

The 80/20 diet helps trigger slimming in two major ways. The first, you may have guesses is psychological. Studies show when we entirely remove a food we crave from our diets, we tend to crave the food more, and we’re more likely to binge and gain when we are allowed to eat it. Separate research tracking dieters found that women who followed more flexible plans lost significantly more weight than those rigidly adhering to a stricter plan. “Deprivation sets us up for failure,” says Dr. Kellyann. But why?

Experts agree that when food seems scarce, it sets off an internal drive to eat whatever we can get our hands on, an ancient survival mechanism that helped ensure we didn’t starve to death. Eating 80/20 basically allows us to override the mechanism, so our waist shrinks even in times of plenty. (Click through to learn about another psychological trick, mindful eating for weight loss.)

How the 80/20 diet speeds metabolism

But that’s not all the 80/20 diet does to benefit our waists. Surprising but true: There’s solid evidence that indulging 20% of the time is a great way to stoke metabolism. “It works by confusing your body,” explains Dr. Kellyann. “When you make smart choices most of the time, then suddenly give your body more calories or carbs than it’s used to, it jolts your system in a way that dials up metabolism.”

Nutrition researcher Barbara Crosby backs her up. Crosby began experimenting with the concept of controlled indulgence many years ago, hoping to get clients off weight-loss plateaus. She says the effect was often immediate, helping women who’d stopped losing on strict plans begin burning 7,000 to 10,500 more calories a week — and slimming them down like crazy. And research confirms that when we indulge, our metabolism kicks into action and burns extra calories faster than usual. Bonus: Research in the International Journal of Obesity says that “cheat days” up your production of hunger-suppressing leptin by 30%.

80/20 diet success story: Linda Migliaccio, 58

Before discovering 80/20, Linda Migliaccio desperately needed surgery following a severe knee injury. “I was told I was too heavy to recover from the procedure, that I’d end up wheelchair-bound unless I lost 100 pounds,” recalls the New Jersey business owner and lifelong yo-yo dieter. Terrified, she vowed to slim down and break her pattern of regaining.

Linda read books and blogs on the psychological aspects of weight loss. “I learned about treating myself with compassion. Sometimes we need comfort foods,” she recalls. So Linda decided to let herself have them, using an 80/20 twist on plant-based eating. “Most of my meals are whole plant foods with no added salt, oil or sugar. But then there are sittings where I eat cheesesteak, chocolate, ice cream and my favorite pumpkin pie. Once I gave myself permission to not be ‘perfect’ all the time, there was no stopping me.”

Linda shed 100 pounds in 31 weeks and is down 196 pounds in all. Now 58 and maintaining for two years, she says 80/20 has been a joyful way to transform her body. “I’m pain-free. I no longer suffer from depression, migraines or high blood pressure. I am 100% prescription-free,” she says. “I’m thriving!”

80/20 diet before and after: Kathy Sharrah, 53

Before and after photos of Kathy Sharrah who lost 103 lbs on 80/20 diet plan
Eric Forberger

After decades of health struggles, Kathy Sharrah and her doctor discussed gastric bypass. “I couldn’t afford it, but I wanted to feel better,” recalls the Pennsylvania grandmother, 53, who had often dieted and regained. When she read about 80/20, “I liked the idea of no deprivation!” So she began using a free app to track calories and eat nutritious food about 80% of the time. Then she used her 20% for pizza, cookies and more favorites. In 18 months, Kathy dropped from 259 to 156 pounds as her energy and wellness soared. “I was never hungry, and I gave up nothing!”

80/20 diet meal ideas

To use this slimming trend, all you do is make smart choices for about 8 meals out of 10. Use any healthy approach you like. One popular option: Stick to three meals and one snack, all made with moderate portions of unprocessed food. Then for 2 out of every 10 meals, savor what you crave, aiming to push your plate away once satisfied. Our sample menu shows you how easy and delicious it can be!

Waffle on a plate topped with berries and yogurt as part of 80/20 diet plan

Breakfast: Top a serving of frozen waffles—keto, Paleo or whole-grain—with Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. Enjoy with coffee or tea.

Lunch: Pile a salad with hearty seasonal toppings like roasted sweet potato, beets, lentils, nuts, cheese and olive-oil vinaigrette.

Dinner: Simmer up a bowl of chili with your favorite ingredients, including lots of veggies and protein from lean meat and/or beans.

Splurge: Indulge regularly in your favorite treats and feast foods. From casseroles to cupcakes, nothing is off limits!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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