80/20 Rule: Is it Really All About What You Eat Over How Much You Workout?

To work out or not to work out, it’s a question that plagues us all at one point or another.  If you’re like me and exercise is part of your daily routine, then this question comes up on a regular basis.

There are many people out there that spend a substantial amount of time at the gym, only to leave and fill up calories that undo all the work they just put in.  The excuse, “I can eat this I just burned 800 calories at the gym”, but the truth is, no, you can’t, or, no, you shouldn’t.  

If you’ve made the decision to live a healthy lifestyle, you have decided that what you put in to your body is just as important as your daily activity. Your sweat session may have your heart racing and sweat dripping, but it means nothing if you follow it up with a trip to one of the many fast food chains.  

The truth is, your nutritional intake is the most important part of a healthy lifestyle.  If you’re an avid social media user and follow one of the many fitness experts, ask yourself how often they post about the value meal they had from McDonalds or the huge sundae they just ate?  That’s right; you don’t, because they know the importance of nutrition.

This is when the 80/20 rule comes in, your healthy lifestyle should consist of 80% nutrition and 20% exercise.  Many people may disagree and feel that it should be more evened out and while I don’t completely disagree, nutritional intake not only affects your weight, but your overall health.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical day-in-the-life of average Jane.  For the sake of accuracy, let’s assume that Jane is 5’3”, weighs 130lbs, is in her mid-twenties, and maintains an active lifestyle (works out 5-6 times a week).  This means Jane’s caloric intake should be 1,200 calories.

Jane wakes up gets in a 60 minute cardio workout on the elliptical burning 600 calories.  When she gets home she sips a latte with skim milk (170 calories) while she gets ready for work.  On her way in to work she stops by her local coffee shop and picks up a plain muffin (290 calories).  

It’s lunchtime and Jane decides to pick up a Caesar salad (320 calories including the dressing).  

Around 4p Jane begins to crave something sweet and heads over to the closest coffee shop for a piece of crumb cake (670 calories).

Where are we now?  1,450 calories, but we’ll take off 600 calories for the cardio.  So Jane has now consumed 850 calories and she hasn’t even had dinner yet!

Dinner time rolls around and Jane is going to meet some friends for sushi.  She orders a white wine (80 calories), a California roll (6 pieces- 255 calories), and a Spicy Tuna roll (6 pieces- 240 calories). 

As Jane’s day comes to an end we can now look at her totals.  She has digested over 2,025 calories in a day!  Let’s not forget about that work out which takes her down to 1,425, but that is still 200 calories over what she should be eating to maintain her healthy weight.  Now, if today is a rare calorie count for Jane, this is OK, but if she continues like this, it will affect her health and weight.

Did you think that AM cardio session helped?  Or that it justifies her diet?

Hopefully you thought it helped, but that her diet could have improved.

If Jane had made better choices throughout the day the 600 calories burned would have been an added plus, instead of just helping her bring down her calorie count.

Let’s go back through Jane’s day and adjust the choices made.

Breakfast was a muffin and while muffins can be an absolute delight, they are also filled with sugars, gluten, and “bad” carbohydrates.  Some berries (140) and a cup of plain yogurt (130) would have given her body good nutrients.  According to the current USDA data women between the ages of 19-30 should be eating up to 3 cups of fruit and dairy daily; you can get that most of that intake done before you get to work!

For lunch Jane chose a Cesear Salad, which seems like a great choice, but what most people don’t realize is that Cesear dressing alone is 130 calories!  Why waste all that on just the dressing?  Cesear Salad is packed with fat (over 40 grams!) and sodium (over 260 grams!).  She could have chosen a Quinoa salad which is rich in protein or simply had a Greek salad (150 calories) and added chicken (130 calories for 3oz) for protein.  Lunch would have been 300 calories of protein and greens, meaning her body would have been filled with lots of the daily required nutrients and kept her energy up for the rest of the day.

That 4pm snack really got her in the calorie department!  If Jane had had a protein packed lunch she may not have needed to indulge in that sugary snack.  An apple (75 calories) or bag of pretzels (100 calories) would have made for a more filling and value packed snack.

Jane’s dinner choices were not terrible, but when dining on sushi, understand that you can customize.  Opt for no rice (they wrap the sushi in cucumber) or brown rice instead and stay away from tempura rolls those are fried.  Try asking for low sodium soy sauce, too much sodium, is well, too much sodium and sushi rolls can contain upwards of 100 grams of sodium per piece.  The USDA recommends 2300 grams of sodium per day for everyone and if you’re taking in 600 grams just on one roll at one meal, you’re going to hit your limit very quickly!

Your body needs food, it needs nutrients so you can’t just say “that’s it I’m not eating today”, because while you will lose weight, your organs won’t have the energy to do their jobs.

If you make the good choices 80% of the time and fill your body with the nutrients it needs, then you won’t have to feel guilty about missing a workout.  

The idea is that you should get some activity at least 20% of the time.  But something as simple as a walk after lunch or taking the stairs counts as active movement.  The current USDA data reports that if adults (18+) should participate in at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of light to moderate activity a week, that’s 21 minutes a day!

All that being said, if you’re a very busy person who just cannot find the time to fit in an intense 60 minute workout on a regular basis, pay more attention to what you’re eating.  Focusing on your dietary intake will not only benefit your brain and but your body as a whole!