I recently attended the Paleo FX conference in Austin, Texas (Check out the best goods from the conference HERE), and I was met with a tremendous amount of earth shoes, man buns and strong convictions about the “how” around executing a paleo plan perfectly.  I was a little overwhelmed, to say the least.

How To Dominate The Paleo 80/20 Rule


I have been practicing a paleo program for about nine years. I use the word “practicing” very intentionally. You never, with any food plan, “arrive.” Nutrition requires constant dialing and tuning depending on age, fitness level, stress capacity, weight and any other body metric of which you might think. 

Wait…What the heck is “PALEO” – read THIS and come back.

Over the years I have been learning more and more about Paleo. Paleogrubs and Paleo Leap have been two of the best resources to which I can direct you if you are a paleo beginner. Michelle Tan’s Nom Nom Paleo website also has a wealth of great paleo education.

When first committing to a primal plan it is most effective if you commit 100 percent. No flex. 

The good news is now there are thousands of brands, blogs, and recipes to support your journey. When I started, it was me, Mark Sisson, and a bunch of the man-buns I referred to in the first paragraph.

The 80/20 is not something you engage in on the start of your paleo plan. It s important that you spend some time following the plan 100 percent so that you give your body enough time to properly recover from the impact of foods that aggravate your system.  I would suggest that once you work up to eating 100 percent paleo that you do so for at least 30 days (preferably 90) before you consider personalizing your approach. As you become more in tune with your body and the foods that fuel you, you can play with a little flex in your plan (Earmuffs Paleo Fx Conference).

I strongly believe the plan that is going to work and have any chance of sustainability is the one that you are actually going to stick to. So, if a little flex in the program results in similar or same results and facilitates you to stay on the paleo train, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to find your middle ground.

Check out this article to learn some of the Myths and Mysteries of the paleo plan.

There are also reasons that someone might not experience the success they are hoping for on the program. Read this to find out “Why Your Paleo Plan Is A Complete Fail.”

Now, let’s talk about the parameters of the 80/20 rule. You would think it is defined as eating 80 percent of calories strictly paleo and 20 percent of calories with some degree of flex. But what exactly does that mean?

The Parameters Of The Paleo 80/20 Rule


80/20 is not written in stone – The designation of “80 percent” is random, truth be told. It is simply a starting point. If, while playing the ratios, you start to lose ground (gain weight, sluggish energy, GI issues, sleep problems, etc. ) then you may not be eligible for that particular ratio. You may be more of a 90/10 or somewhere in between. My recommendation is to never flex below 80% of your calories being strictly paleo if you want to get the best results possible from the plan. Remember, if your symptoms return, consistent with what you had before beginning your paleo journey, flexing the plan may not be in the cards for you at all.

80/20 The Right Way – When I refer to an 80/20 percent plan for paleo, I do not mean for you to have a Twinkie perched on 20 percent of every paleo plate.  I am referring to total meals, not plates. There are two ways one could approach this. You could make 20% of each plate “non-paleo, ” or you could take the total amount of plates you eat in a week and allow 20 percent of them to have some small flex in the plan. Guess which one is right? 

The beauty of paleo is it can transform your physiology, brain function, hormones, weight and so much more, but not if you don’t give it a chance. Many “100 percent” paleo meals strung together is what makes paleo effective. Escaping from those nasty Legumes, hormone-laden dairy and inflammatory grains require dedicated time to heal. If you eat each meal with a little portion of your plate being off plan, then you are getting exposed to things with which your body is not compatible.

80/20 starts with adding up all of your meals for the week. Let’s say that number is 35 (three meals, two snacks per day) 20 percent of 35 is seven. This means seven meals (and frankly that might be high for many) may have a little flex, and 28 meals of the week are perfectly paleo. Get it?

Food Sensitivities –  If you have food sensitivities or allergies, you do not have permission to include them in the foods you select from for your 20%. Nope. Not ever. Food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, nuts, corn, and other common culprits can cause inflammation in your system up to nine weeks according to the Paleo Mom.

Alcohol – For me, this is where my flexing happens. (I know I am not alone!) But let’s stop here for a moment. This discussion about alcohol is a great opportunity to address something. If you CHOOSE to flex left or right of your paleo plan, make a thoughtful choice.

Alcohol is not paleo. This is true. If I am going to have alcohol might I consider what might be the least offender? Perhaps I might think about what choice of adult beverage is the least damaging to my system? Should I choose ten times distilled organic vodka with soda water and organic rosemary or cheap tequila and high fructose corn syrup margarita mix? I think you know. 😉

Organic And Unprocessed Foods Rock! –  Before Friday night, before you are already at the party, I encourage you to be intentional about your 20%. If and when you decide to eat something off the paleo agenda what kind of choice do you want to make? Fresh organic beans out of the garden or canned beans? Organic grass fed cheese or American slices? Brown rice or white bread? See how that works? Stick closely to organic and unprocessed foods as a non-negotiable rule on or off plan.

The 80/20 is not both feet of a cliff. It is a conscious decision to, on occasion, to flex a little left or right.

Nutrition should not be a prison or punishment. One of the biggest reasons diets fail is that they are unsustainable. For some, this small amount of flexibility means they can keep committing week after week to whole foods, excellent nutritive impact and transformational physiologic change with a mostly paleo program. For others executing 100 percent paleo is not burdensome. (Cue man bun.) For the rest of us, an occasional choice to eat something not strictly paleo might just be the key to keeping both feet planted in the plan.

Want to just check out the VIDEO of this post? 


If you have been practicing paleo for some time, I encourage you to strategically evaluate when you find yourself shifting. Is it weekends of late evenings? Are your shifts conscious or reactionary? If you are not making good choices when using your 20% how could you be doing better? And if you are 100 percent paleo and that is sustainable, massive high five!! That, by far is the best execution of the plan.