The Primal 80/20 Principle | Mark’s Daily Apple

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"80/20" on orange note on wooden background.The 80/20 principle has been a centerpiece of the Primal Blueprint approach and philosophy since the beginning, but I still get comments and questions about it. In case you’re not familiar, the 80/20 principle suggests that in the context of a full and earnest commitment to making health-promoting choices, conforming with the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws 80% of the time will yield a solidly healthy result.

Many tell me how much they love the concept. It’s a feature that makes the Primal lifestyle possible for them. Others suggest that it leaves too much room for backsliding. Still others find it confusing—does it mean living 100% Primal only 80% of the time and partying it up that other 20%? Or does it mean living 80% Primal 100% of the time? (The answer is neither, as you’ll see.)

I love having these kinds of discussions within the community. Your perspectives help me to continue to grow and evolve my thinking even after all these years. So let me share my perspective on the 80/20 principle, and I encourage you to share your own thoughts in the comments as well. Just because I’m “the Primal guy” doesn’t mean I get to dictate how you interpret what it means to live Primally, nor how you embody these teachings in your own life. It’s obviously a general principle and, as such, it’s intended to mean different things to different people.

What Is the 80/20 Principle, And What Is It NOT?

In short, the 80/20 principle is a rule to make Primal doable in the context of the modern world. It’s a feature that makes the Primal Blueprint a fully achievable, enduring lifestyle that reconciles with the grind and disruptions of daily life.

Let me put it this way: the 80/20 principle is an acknowledgment that we’re adults who take full responsibility for every choice but occasionally find ourselves in circumstances that aren’t conducive to adhering fully to the Primal Laws. You should always have the intention to do your best, to aim for 100%. But you should not let your commitment to Primal living become a source of stress or anxiety, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up or throw in the towel when perfection isn’t possible.

You have agency and reasoning skills, so you should be able to make conscious compromises. Perhaps you’re on vacation and really want the experience of sampling the local cuisine. For you, it’s part of the adventure. You authentically choose within the 80/20 principle to make the most of your hard earned adventure. (Personally, this is my favorite manifestation of the principle.) Maybe it’s a special anniversary or family gathering. You don’t use the situation as an excuse to wildly abandon your commitment to health and longevity. You loosen the strings enough to find the best balance between short-term experience and long-term goals.

Sometimes the 80/20 principle is a matter of feasibility. Travel doesn’t always present the most ideal Primal options. A difficult period in your life (new baby, death or serious illness in the family) may temporarily disrupt your focus or ability to do all the good things you normally incorporate into your routine.

There are also the Primal ideals, especially when it comes to food. I know not everyone has ready access to or the budget for grass-fed beef, pastured butter, organic produce, or a wide diversity of produce year round. This is where that old saying comes in: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” The majority of the health benefits from Primal come from eliminating the grains, sugars, and nasty oils. Worrying about organic, local, and so on is the cherry on top. Likewise, if all you manage right now is walking and microworkouts, but you haven’t found a way to build sprints into your routine yet, you’re still miles ahead of the person who is still sedentary.

Sometimes you just have to do the best you can. It’s not a question of motivation or commitment but the influence of external conditions. Think of it as a cushion, not a cop-out, and focus on the big picture. Primal success is 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.

And What Is It Not?

Most importantly, it isn’t permission to only shoot for 80% compliance or success. If you set out to make your Primal commitment 80%, guess what. It will likely fall well below that. If you set out to make your commitment 100%, you’ll probably settle in somewhere between 80 and 95%.

It doesn’t mean getting 20% of your calories from ice cream and the other 80% from meats and salads. The 80/20 principle isn’t about “cheating” 20% of the time.

It isn’t intended as a “get-out-of-Primal-free card” for flocking to grains, skimping on fat or protein, or ignoring a continuing sleep deficit.

It doesn’t mean you’re perfect during the week and then go on a bender on the weekend.

It doesn’t mean working out 10 months of the year and then taking two months off to veg on the couch.

It doesn’t mean picking your favorite 8 of the 10 Primal Blueprint laws and scrapping the other two.

And let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with achieving 100%. If you find the Primal Laws easy to incorporate fully into your life, that’s cause for celebration, not concern. I would never suggest that you’re missing out on life because you don’t feel the need to indulge in conscious compromises. More power to you if you’re happy and fulfilled without them.

Is This the Same as the 80/20 Rule Diet?

Decidedly no, but I’ve gotten this question a fair amount, so let’s clear it up. When people talk about the 80/20 diet, they usually mean the eating strategy attributed to Australian nutritionist, chef, and personal trainer Teresa Cutter. In this approach, you are supposed to “be good” 80% of the time, but you are allowed to indulge the other 20% of the time within reason. No foods are off the table. It’s a “have your cake and eat it too” diet, and it’s very much NOT what the Primal 80/20 principle represents.

The Primal 80/20 principle isn’t a diet at all; it’s more of a mindset. It’s about giving yourself permission not to be perfect, not actually planning dietary excursions into your week. By the same token, the 80/20 principle isn’t carb cycling, alternate day fasting, or any other structured eating pattern. With those, the assumption is that you’re (mostly) sticking to Primal foods but eating at specific times or with certain macronutrient ratios.

And of course, the Primal Blueprint encompasses more than nutrition, so the Primal 80/20 principle does as well. All aspects of Primal living—movement, sleep, stress management, social connection, cognitive challenge—fall under the 80/20 umbrella. There are probably some aspects you’re closer to 100% on most of the time and others you struggle with. For me, the food part is easy, but I’ve historically struggled with the stress bit.

When Does the 80/20 Principle NOT Apply?

There are times when 100% compliance—or something close to it—is important. One example that comes to mind is when someone is using an elimination diet (autoimmune protocol, low-FODMAP, etc.) to explore chronic symptoms. Unless they are strict about eliminating and then systematically reintroducing potential trigger foods, the diet probably won’t be much use.

Another time when it makes sense to be stricter is during the transition to a keto diet. Ketosis is a notoriously fragile metabolic state. Eat a single high-carb meal or snack, and wham, you’re out. When you’re in the process of adapting to keto, it makes sense to be consistent for at least the first four to six weeks to facilitate the process. Even after that, there’s little wiggle room if staying in ketosis is important to you.

The Bottom Line

At its core, the 80/20 principle is a recognition that life isn’t totally predictable and that we’re not in Grok’s Kansas anymore. Denying that reality and trying to fit Primal principles perfectly into modern life can be like jamming a square peg into a round hole. The point of 80/20 is to release the pressure valve that comes with thinking that you are supposed to be perfect and that this Primal living thing should come easily all the time.

As the Primal Blueprint cements itself in your routine, it generally becomes easier (and more desirable) to live well above that 80%. That was my experience, and I can’t even count how many people have told me the same over the years.  The Primal Blueprint comes naturally for me now because my entire lifestyle revolves around it and I’ve been doing it so long. It’s so much a part of my routine that I don’t often think about it except when I travel. It will become your normal as well, but the chance that you’ll always be the perfect Primal specimen are small. I’m not, and I’m fine with that.

I encourage everyone to focus on the process and the big picture, not simply the daily details. The Primal Blueprint is first and foremost about taking full responsibility for your life and health. No excuses, no guilt.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep the questions and comments coming!

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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