In college I had an informal internship with a financial manager of a very large church. One of the things he told me was that 80% of the giving was received from 20% of the congregation. That surprised me. Since then I’ve sat through [too] many sales training presentations urging me to focus on the 20% of clients that provide 80% of my revenues. The “80/20 rule” is worthwhile tool for evaluating business strategies. Not so much for evaluating diet strategies.
I’ll take that a step further. It is utterly destructive to those seeking to lose weight. Not the rule itself, but how it is applied.
If I asked dieters if they apply the 80/20 rule to their method of dieting, those that said yes would say they follow whatever guidelines they’ve adopted about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time they eat ice cream, Swedish Fish or whatever other indulgence they consider to be outside their diet.
Now perhaps a fit, active person with a healthy metabolism can get away with such nutritional promiscuity. I sure couldn’t. I found that when I relaxed my standards even a little bit, my weight lost stopped completely.
I mistakenly thought of dieting as a series of choices along a curve of diminishing returns. ”Take care of the big stuff,” I thought, “and the small stuff won’t even matter.” This thinking was born from broad but shallow personal experience across a wide variety of fad diets. I never once tried a diet that didn’t work in the beginning. I would buy a new diet book and have a somewhat miserable but productive couple weeks following its rules. I would easily lose 5 to 10 lbs and think to myself, “this is gonna be the one!” and probably enjoy a celebratory bowl of ice cream.
But soon weight loss would stall. As the scale ceased its downward trend, my conviction about sticking to my dietary rules waned. At some point, I would abandon the diet, crossing it off my mental list as one that didn’t work, at least not for me.
One of the benefits of writing about my dietary journey now instead of live as I experienced it is the benefit of hindsight. After finally experiencing a successful transition into an entirely different way of eating, I believe my perspective on the reason for the success is far more nuanced. Things that seemed like afterthoughts turned out to be the foundation for consistent weight loss.
Diligently transcribing every morsel of food that went into my mouth proved critical in lasting beyond the easy, honeymoon stage of this dietary change. With only 15 grams of sugar, the impact of incidental consumption is magnified. How many squares of dark chocolate contain the 5 grams of sugar on the label? What about the hidden sugar in that marinara sauce? Was there one gram or two grams in the little bit of jam that I licked from my fingers after making toast for my kids? It all counts in my body so it all has to be accounted for. I typically would ignore these little things when I waited until the end of the day to mentally tally my sugar consumption. What I estimated to be very strict adherence to the 15/6 ratio turned was actually falling a bit short of the mark. It was far better than how I’d been eating just a few months prior, but it wasn’t what I needed.
I believe, after the initial weight loss honeymoon phase, that true transformation of habits and lifestyle come from severe overcompensation. In other words, 100% compliance. 80% compliance gives you all the misery of deprivation, yet keeps you with enough stake in your old ways that transformation–and real results–never occurs. However, pushing that compliance from 80% to 100% is where the magic happens. I’m so convinced of the truth of this concept that I made this chart in PowerPoint. Yes, I’m serious. That’s how I roll.
So for most people this is going to be good news. I know that outside of a 3 month stint with Weight Watchers back in 2003, I’d never even found the inflection point on that red line, much less climbed it. It’s easy to understand why I was so disillusioned with fad dieting that I didn’t even bother to take a proper before picture. But once I found myself moving through the final 20% of compliance, not only did the weight consistently come off but my habits started to change.
While I think it’s important to honestly evaluate our compliance, I’m not suggesting that you need to get out a scale and weigh out each portion of food. There is a line where diligence becomes neurosis and you don’t need to go near it. Remember, fats and proteins can be consumed with impunity as long as portions are reasonable. So the only thing you need to be careful about are the carbs and sugars. Read your labels and remember, 20 grams or less is one serving. If you consume 26 grams because you had two pieces of toast, that’s 2 of the 6 six servings you get in a day. Don’t try to maximize the carbs. And no, you don’t get to subtract the fiber.
This kind of attention to detail will take you from 80% compliance up to 90% and beyond. I think going from 80% to 90% compliance doubles the effectiveness of the diet and going up another 10% to full, 100% compliance doubles the effectiveness again, effectively maximizing its impact.
While I would hypothesize that this redefinition of the 80/20 rule can be applied most weight loss systems, I don’t think the reason all those other diets failed is simply because I lacked the discipline to push through 80% mark. I think the biggest issue for me was that I was hungry all the time because, at their core, most of the other diets ultimately aimed at calorie restriction as a goal–they just accomplished it in different ways.
The Belly Fat Cure succeeds here because it doesn’t limit the quantity of food, just the type. Of course, the fats and proteins that you are allowed to consume until you’re full are far more satiating than the processed carbs that are a staple in the standard American diet. Cutting out the sugars and limiting the processed carbs initiates a profound change in your metabolism. Remember that your body is constantly responding to the stimulus you provide to operate at peak efficiency and ensure survivial. If you give your body all the (healthy) fat it can handle, it will stop hoarding the fat you have stored on your body. This actually makes sense from the perspective of survival: why would you hoard something that is abundantly available? This is why low fat diets tend to be so frustrating; depriving your body of fat sends the signal to your body that fat is a scarce resource that must be preserved at all costs. Similarly, if you deprive the body of the unhealthy amount of sugar it’s used to getting, your body will look for a new source of everyday energy. What better choice than these all these healthy fats that suddenly appear in abundance? The transition phase typically occurs in the first few weeks of the BFC diet and it tends to be quite unpleasant. Low energy levels, sugar/carb cravings and irritability frequently plague the emerging fat burner. Don’t worry though, it passes eventually and most people report increased energy levels.
I’ll end this post with one final note of caution. If my carrot of the 80/20 rule hasn’t persuaded you to take this ultra-low sugar thing seriously, than let me show you this huge stick. This should be obvious; eating all the fat you want while still consuming even a moderate amount of sugar will not promote weight loss. Quite the opposite, I suspect. Sugar limitation is the key to reprogramming your hormones. This cannot be a “weekday only” diet where you go crazy on the weekends. Cheat days are not the end of the world but one bad day will confuse your body and stall progress. Consistency really matters in this way of eating.
Are you curious about what kinds of things I eat? I’m working on some functional recipes and hope to put some up over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned.