Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
20 May

80/20 Principle

For anyone who’s ever adopted a new diet plan for weight loss or overall health, it’s a familiar nightmare. The backdrop varies (an all you can eat buffet, holiday party, dark and silent kitchen in the middle of the night), but the suspense is universal. The temptation, a mental struggle, the cautious scanning of the room. A subliminal background track climbs in crescendo. You give into the slightest slip, a minor indiscretion, really, and suddenly there you are, dropping through a trap door, plummeting down a dark, cavernous shoot, screaming in terror, only to fall into a sorry heap of shame at the fiery center of the earth (or other subconscious setting for doom or disgrace).

Though the vision itself is imaginary, the performance anxiety is often real. “Will I measure up?” “Can I hack it?” “How can I be that strict 100% of the time?” Questions (and doubts) abound for many as they contemplate a diet and lifestyle overhaul, including the Primal Blueprint. Perfectionism, the letter of the law, looms large in these moments.

We’ve tackled the angst-ridden questions, taken on the transition trials before, but there’s an overarching PB principle to be noted here. The Primal Blueprint, as we say, is all about Primal living. Living. Enjoying. Even chilling out. This is not a lab controlled experiment or a boot camp. No interns in white coats with clip boards will show up at your door or spy on you. No screaming sergeants will get in your face. As we’ve noted before – on a personal level, it’s your own process, your own journey. But even at the heart of its philosophy, the PB isn’t an austere all or nothing proposition. Enter the 80/20 principle….

We often say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And for good reason. The target of the PB is deep-seated: the long haul of a healthful life, not a brief stop off for cosmetic fixes. The necessary approach, then, is centered around sustainability. One hundred percent compliance with PB principles is ideal, sure, but consider it the ultimate representation – a consummate form rather than typical daily function. The PB is rooted in life, not just research, after all. A practical baseline is this: if you align your life with the PB principles 80% of the time, consider yourself on course.

However… Even though 100% compliance isn’t the exact everyday expectation, 100% commitment is the intention. While we concede that real life happens, the acknowledgement is a necessary reality check, not an easy excuse. PB living does require steady commitment, genuine effort and daily dedication. But the key here is personal commitment – a primal “lens” you develop and learn to view decisions through. Think of your PB transition and continuing evolution in terms of process-oriented goals rather than the rigid commandments of typical diet plans. Give your PB plan 100%, and understand it’s O.K. when daily life moderates the overall picture. An 80% end result will have you well on your way to success and sustainable health.

That said, some aspects of the Blueprint do call for consistent adherence in the interest of meaningful impact. Particular among these is avoidance of processed carbs. The fact is, the physiological effects of processed carbs simply are harsher and harder to recover from – especially when they’re a regular player in the body’s daily functioning. It’s not that your body can’t bounce back. It’s just an unnecessary detour in your progress – a diversion and interruption (albeit temporary) in the physiological homeostasis that maximizes hormonal balance, fat burning and energy consistency.

As you continue the Primal transition, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised. Taste buds have a strange way of adapting themselves. Once you’re off the physiological sugar roller coaster, the psychological habit has a way of falling by the wayside. You find recipes, workouts, stress management practices you genuinely enjoy. In fact, you miss them if you have to or choose to skip a day. You actually look forward to getting back to the routine. After learning/relearning how a good night’s sleep can make you feel, you’re now unwilling to go without it unnecessarily. Earnest perseverance facilitates compliance, which begins to come naturally. You see and feel the benefits. Going backward seems unrewarding.

Rest assured, in the course of the transition you’ll make the pieces fit comfortably into your own life. As a lifestyle and process-oriented plan, the PB inherently cultivates an internal compass.

PB living will become less about regimen and more about natural gravitation toward the lifestyle that offers vitality and balance. Eventually, the process will take on its own momentum and actually require less effort and thought over time.

The take home message is this. The PB is not a white knuckle ride. Loosen the grip, look for smart adjustments, absorb the overall vision and weave it into your life instead of nailing it over top your old habits.

And remember that the essence of the Blueprint (and its success) is found in the overall picture – your own encompassing and idiosyncratic embodiment – not the collection of minute details. (No checklists here.) It’s less about what you do at any one meal or single bout at the gym and more about what you do over the course of a given week or month. Think the spirit rather than letter of the law. Where full commitment and full life intersect – that’s the seat of the Primal success and the logic of its 80% principle.

How does the 80% principle play out in your Primal lifestyle? Share your thoughts and questions on the concept.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. i am glad for the 80/20 i’m new to PB and it feels more approachable and doable than any other food change i have done. there is a lot to change in foods i eat, habits and even understanding the concepts. so the 80/20 gives me a base to start off from and the more i learn and understand AND feel good i think i can strive for 90/10, then 100%. but i do agree sometimes life happens whether it’s good like celebrating a special birthday or bad like a funeral. and it’s not when we fall that matters it’s how we rise in the end and move forward.

    jos wrote on January 6th, 2011
  2. Challenges first 2 months going Primal, and remaining focused.
    Fancy dinner at Italian restaurant with fresh baked bread. I ordered grilled salmon on a bed of mixed greens..Yum! Weekly breakfast at local diner, used to order eggs, buttered toast, sausage and home fries, coffee with Splenda. Now I order, 2 poached eggs, w/2 strips of bacon, black coffee and hot sauce.
    Pot luck dinner at friends house, was fasting that week, so I ate nothing.

    I spent all Saturday creating 8 different dishes, from Spanish, Indian and Italian influences and freezing them. No, they are not for me, they are for my husband, so I have more time to cook the new veggie recipes and not be concerned with cooking 2 seperate meals in one night.
    Every challenge motivates me to stick to Paleo options …you can always find and alternative and fasting is still very new to me, but skipping a meal will not harm me.
    Thanks for the easy recipes.

    Katia Saenz wrote on May 6th, 2011
  3. I’ve never analysed 80-20 principle in weight loss context. Great article, opened a new facet to me. Thanks.

    Saurabh Hooda wrote on March 19th, 2012
  4. I’ve been reading many of the comments here and I’m sure there is no one right answer for everyone. What might work for one person might not for someone else. As for myself, I have an all or nothing mentality as well, which means, I can’t just have a ‘bit’ of my favourite treats, such as sweet stuff, nuts, nut butters, bananas, or a combination thereof. I hardly eat non-primal foods (even if I eat bread, it’s either sprouted wheat or really dark rye with no sugar or syrup), but ‘trigger foods’ don’t necessarily have to be complete junk. Being off sick for 3 days now taught me a lesson though: less cardio equals a lowered appetite for sugary/energy dense foods. Lesson learned: may cut back even further next week and see how it affects my cravings..

    foxygodzi wrote on April 8th, 2012
  5. So true: “You find recipes, workouts, stress management practices you genuinely enjoy. In fact, you miss them if you have to or choose to skip a day.”

    I had to skip a week of strength training work-outs due to a forearm injury. One day, I woke up and realized I had been working out in my dreams. That’s how I knew I was ready to start up again!

    A. wrote on June 11th, 2012
  6. Hey guys i’m a vegetarian by choice, but i really want to try the primal way…eating meat makes me sick, is there any way i can do this without meat?

    April wrote on January 25th, 2013
  7. Hi! Very thought-provoking comments! As a 50 y/o menopausal woman who has dieted on & off for my adult life, I would truly love to hear from women my age who have adopted this life-style! It all sounds great but it seems more successful w/ younger males.
    I then go on to read some of Ray Peat’s work as I am suspicious that I may have hypothyroidism (hypoglycemia, increasing weight gain, high cholesterol, HTN, triglycerides are climbing etc). I’ve been reading stuff on IF & it seems intriguing but it has it’s dark side as well (esp in folks w/ history of eating disorders).
    It’s all so CONFUSING! I do want to be healthier & fit but sometimes I just want some spaghetti & garlic bread!
    Hey, I’m all for cutting out the processed crap, getting off my ass for some exercise, but after literally years of intermittent dieting, I have hit a hard psychological wall. I cannot weigh, measure or journal one more thing! I would rather poke my eye out with a steak knife than weigh or journal one more freakin’ bite or sip!
    So my long winded ramble is really a plea to hear from my menopausal sisters who do not have histories of serious EDs & ask if the Primal Lifestyle works for them? I don’t need to be an Amazon Queen or a Cougar Model! That said, though, I don’t want to be a frumpy middle-age fat-assed lethargic cow. How do I incorportae this into my real-life? Should I? I’m also very interested to hear who Intuitive Eating works with the Primal Life-Style?
    Thanks for reading! Much obliged!

    Kerrie wrote on February 15th, 2013
  8. I haven’t had a problem giving up sugary stuff since I never liked sweets, but it’s the complex carbs that will do me in.

    I couldn’t give up my red beans and rice a few dinners per week or my curry potatoes. Given, I don’t eat much, just a bowl about the size of my hand. But still, it probably exceeds the 20%.

    Heda wrote on May 19th, 2013
  9. Is that an acronym? I hope so, because I always get nervous when people capitalize an entire word for no apparent reason.

    I don’t think Mark, or anyone here, ever disputed that starches played a role in the early human diet. Roots and tubers are included in the PB’s dietary section, and sweet potatoes/yams are “allowed.” They just weren’t the staples. And grains? I’m sure they sampled them (otherwise, how would we know to start growing them 10k years ago), but they certainly didn’t form a significant part of the diet. And when they did begin to form a big part of our diet? We can tell by the fossils – tooth decay, stunted growth, weaker bones, all markers of poor health.

    I guess I’m not clear what you’re attempting to argue. Do you dispute that a diet high in fat, meats, whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and berries is optimum for the human animal? Our claim is not that mankind is being wiped out by the foods of agriculture; obviously, we’ve managed to survive okay. Our bone is that we aren’t living as well or as healthily as we possibly can. We’re just getting by, if you can call historic levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases “getting by.” We’re slowly wasting away.

    And you contend that we’ve adapted to starches, sugars, and grains – correct? Even if we grant you that, you surely don’t assert that we’ve adapted to vegetable oils, trans fats, processed food, refined carbs, and margarine – most of which has only been available to the human genome for less than a hundred years? On the flipside, do you contend that saturated fat – of which our body fat is primarily composed and which has been an integral part of the human diet for tens of thousands of years – is damaging to our health?

    Just trying to get your perspective.

    Also from Harpending: “The invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago changed our diet and changed our social systems. If you suddenly take hunter-gatherers and give them a diet of corn, they frequently get diabetes. We’re still adapting to that. Several new genes we see spreading through the population are involved with helping us prosper with high-carbohydrate diet.”

    Diabetes is a huge problem in our decidedly sedentary society. Corn is in just about every bit of processed food you can find, too. There appears to be some connection, no? Your guy seems to agree.

    Well, while “we’re still adapting” to a high carb, high sugar diet, I think I’ll abstain and go with the proven method of staying healthy. But please, feel free to play guinea pig. With every can of corn you eat, the human genome gets one step closer to higher evolution.

    erik.cisler wrote on May 25th, 2009
  10. I’m not against the idea that humans have and will continue to evolve to tolerate the ills of the modern world, but I wonder what will drive that evolution since the diseases of the modern world (CHD and Diabetes) tend to effect those after reproductive age. Although it does seem that these diseases are effecting children at younger and younger ages so I guess there is hope. (sorry)

    rob wrote on May 26th, 2009

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