What’s a Discretionary Calorie Allowance? (and How it Can Improve Dietary Adherence)

Egis R.
3 min readSep 21, 2022
Image by the author

July 23, 2021. The day that I wrote the ‘3 Reasons Why Flexible Dieting May Be Your Last Diet’ article. Obviously, I was chemically altered because howthefuckelse I would have written such a great article? Which, I hope, steered some of you into a healthier relationship with food.

One part of the article seriously limited the size of my circle of clean-eating-all-day-err-day friends. I said:

Flexible dieting follows the 80/20 rule. Around 80% of your food choices should come from whole, minimally processed foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc. The rest can come from less nutritious foods (and there’s no reason to beat yourself up for it).

I followed it up with this infographic (because I heard something about people memorizing visual information better):

80/20 rule
Image by the author

But today, for no reason that I can attach a rational explanation to, my brain went ‘Hey, Egis, do you even know where that 20% allowance came from?’ As I mentioned before, at the time of writing the flexible dieting article I was chemically altered so I just rolled with the 80/20 number because all flexible dieting books and articles said the number was legit.

But today, I was in an investigative mood so I found out where the 20% allowance originated from.

In 2005, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) used the term “discretionary calorie allowance” in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I’ll quote the authors directly:

Discretionary Calorie Allowance — the balance of calories remaining in a person’s energy allowance after accounting for the number of calories needed to meet recommended nutrient intakes through consumption of foods in low­fat or no added sugar forms. The discretionary calorie allowance may be used in selecting forms of foods that are not the most nutrient­-dense (e.g., whole milk rather than fat­free milk) or maybe addi­tions to foods (e.g., salad dressing, sugar, butter).

Egis R.

I’m Egis, an online weight loss coach who has heightened BS sensors for fitness & nutrition. Only evidence-based & sustainable fat loss. www.absscience.com