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What if I told you that you could achieve 80% of your plant-based diet goals with just 20% of the effort?

Does this tempt you? Would you try it?

You might have heard of the Pareto Principle. It’s also called the 80/20 rule or the law of the vital few, but it’s not really a rule nor a law. It’s just an observation by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto dating all the way back to 1896.

Pareto first developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. He then extended the principle beyond his garden, publishing a paper showing that approximately 80% of the land and wealth in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It was a keen observation and one that led him to posit the theory that most things in life aren’t distributed evenly.

Applying the Pareto Principle to Plant-Based Eating

While the principle has been widely adapted for use in business, it is equally applicable for anyone trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle through plant-based living.

So you don’t have to go ‘cold turkey’ and be 100% plant-based all at once.

Instead, you can shift 20% of your diet and start seeing 80% of the health results.

Here are three top ways to apply the 80/20 rule to plant-based living.

Eliminate Dairy

One of the first places to go to apply the 80/20 principle to your plant-based journey is to eliminate dairy. Just by doing this one thing will pay extremely high dividends.

Cheese and other dairy products are the #1 source of saturated fat in the American diet and it’s the one food most people say they just can’t live without. But 45% of calories in cheese come from saturated fat. You can definitely live without that.

Cut out all foods containing dairy – including:

  • Grain-based dishes that use milk, cream or butter like desserts, breads, muffins and biscuits.
  • Dairy-based desserts like ice cream, frozen yogurt and custards.
  • Milk-and cream-based gravies and sauces.
  • Casseroles made with cream or sour cream.
  • Macaroni and cheese, pizza…anything with cheese.

Beware: cheese is in everything! So you have to be diligent. Be on the lookout for cheeses in salads, soups, sandwiches, pasta dishes and desserts.

It might seem impossible that all of those dairy foods that were once a part of your life have to go now.

But those beloved dairy foods are calorie-dense and super high in total fat and saturated fat. That’s why the 20% change can make a huge difference.

Eliminate Oils

Getting rid of oil would be another example of applying the 80/20 rule to your plant-based journey. This one small shift will really make a difference in how you feel and look.

As we have discussed, oil is another calorie dense, high fat “food” or ingredient.

One tablespoon of olive, peanut or corn oil contains ~120 calories and 14 grams of fat. In fact, oils are 100% fat. And oils get ALL of their calories from fat. No fiber, virtually no vitamins and minerals – no nothing. Except fat.

Just like dairy, if you eliminate it from your cooking, you’ll be eliminating a lot of other foods and dishes from your diet.

  • Baked foods that use oils, butter or margarine, lard or shortening.
  • Packaged salad dressings.
  • Fried foods (yes, including French fries!)
  • Vegetable dishes sautéed or stir-fried in oils.
  • Pasta dishes with oil bases.

Given that dairy and oils are very calorie-dense ingredients, eliminating one (or both!) will help you lose weight and/or regulate blood biomarkers.

Start Your Day Plant-Based

But maybe you don’t want to (or don’t think you can) eliminate a whole food category completely.

Could you eat one plant-based meal a day instead? One whole food, plant-based meal a day could make a huge difference and there’s no better place to start than at the beginning of your day.

Breakfast is a great place to start for several reasons:

  • People usually eat breakfast at home, so it’s easier to control what’s going into the meal.
  • Breakfast is a less “social” meal than lunch or dinner, making it easier to stick to your plant-based promise.
  • Most people don’t mind eating similar things for breakfast every day – at least not as much as they would having the same thing over and over for lunch or dinner.

There are lots of plant-based alternatives to traditional breakfasts, too. And it doesn’t have to end with oatmeal or hash browns.

Going for Your 20% Today Will Help You Succeed Tomorrow

There’s a huge advantage to focusing on a single change in your diet when you’re transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle: your chances of success are a lot better.

Many (if not most) of the “experts” in the plant-based community say they started with one change or a few small changes and continued to “stack” on more changes along the way.

Once you succeed with one habit change, it’s easier to go for it and stack on the second. And the third. And the fourth, fifth and sixth.

Your success will make you more confident in your ability to make the full transition. Because it makes you realize that since the first one wasn’t as hard as you thought, the second and third won’t be either.

Who would have ever guessed that Pareto (and his peas) could have had so much to say to us plant-based enthusiasts in the 21st century? Applying the 80/20 principle to your plant-based journey will give you excellent results with much less of a struggle. Instead of choosing an ‘all or nothing’ approach, you can move to a plant-based diet the smart way—by changing your habits 20% at a time.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.