What Is the 20/20 Diet?

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At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your health care provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The 20/20 Diet, created by Dr. Phil McGraw of the popular daytime talk show "Dr. Phil," is a four-phase weight loss plan based on the concept of “power foods.” According to McGraw, these foods take a lot of energy to digest, which may aid in the weight loss process.

McGraw's TV show, podcast, and books all cover various mental and emotional health topics, which are his areas of expertise. Although McGraw holds a doctoral degree in psychology, he is neither a medical doctor nor is he an expert in nutrition.

McGraw has written about weight loss in the past. His 2003 New York Times bestseller, "The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom," dives into some of the science behind weight loss. The overarching angle of the book is that people who are overweight may benefit from reframing their perspectives on food and dieting.

In McGraw’s more recent book, "The 20/20 Diet: Turn Your Weight Loss Vision Into Reality," he conveys his signature no-nonsense approach to weight loss with a distinct four-phase plan. The book is marketed toward people who have struggled with yo-yo dieting (weight cycling) and weight regain. The book gained attention following its release in 2015 and the 20/20 Diet quickly became one of the most sought-after diets that year, despite McGraw's lack of nutrition or medical credentials.

What Experts Say

“I’m cautious of any diet that encourages specific foods and requires rigid meal plans or timelines versus sustainable changes. And in this one, I’m concerned that people following the diet will forgo other foods just to make sure the 20 suggested ones make the cut.”

Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD.

What Can You Eat?

The 20/20 Diet is based on the concept of thermogenesis. When something is thermogenic, it means it has a tendency to produce heat. In regard to weight loss, this concept suggests that certain foods make your body work extra hard to digest them and that energy is released as heat (also known as the thermic effect of food). The more energy your body burns while digesting food, the fewer net calories you absorb from that food. 

The 20 “power foods” listed on the 20/20 Diet supposedly take a lot of energy to digest. Those foods are coconut oil, green tea, mustard, olive oil, almonds, apples, chickpeas, dried plums, prunes, leafy greens, lentils, peanut butter, pistachios, raisins, yogurt, eggs, cod, rye, tofu, and whey powder

While this sounds great in theory, there isn’t any conclusive scientific evidence to support the assertion that all 20 foods require more energy to digest than other foods. Green tea seems to be the only food on the list with any conclusive thermogenic data behind it. Some research has, in fact, found green tea to be a metabolism booster, but other research contradicts those findings.

Some of the power foods, such as apples and leafy greens, might help you lose weight because they pack a lot of nutrition with few calories. Other foods on the list are high in calories (e.g., peanut butter, dried fruit, pistachios) and can contribute to weight gain if you aren’t careful about portion sizes.

What You Need to Know

The 20/20 Diet consists of four distinct phases. During all phases, you’re supposed to eat four meals, four hours apart. Here's a quick overview of what to expect during each phase.

  • Phase 1: The Five-Day Boost. During phase one of the plan, you only eat the 20 designated power foods. 
  • Phase 2: The Five-Day Sustain. During phase two, you start adding in foods outside of the 20 power foods, but each meal or snack must contain at least two of the 20 power foods. 
  • Phase 3: The 20-Day Attain. Phase three is significantly longer than phases one and two, and things become more structured. Each meal must contain at least one of the 20 power foods. You’re also allowed two “sensible splurges” of any food you enjoy per week, but only if they stay under 100 calories.
  • Phase 4: Management. When you get to phase four, it’s all about maintaining your weight loss and new eating habits. McGraw's book focuses on daily lifestyle tips and encourages followers to not allow a busy lifestyle to get in the way of their nutrition. 

The first two phases of the 20/20 Diet don’t allow for much modification, but the plan gets more flexible once you enter phases three and four. If you don’t meet your goal weight by the end of phase three, you’re supposed to start over and keep repeating phases one through three until you achieve your goal weight.

No foods are truly off-limits at that point, so you can modify the 20/20 Diet to meet your dietary preferences, whether you follow a vegan, vegetarian, paleo, low-carb, or another eating plan.

People who follow a vegan diet may struggle with the 20/20 Diet, however, especially during the first two phases when yogurt, eggs, and whey powder are consumed. While there are still plenty of other foods to choose from, vegans will also have to modify recipes that include animal products.

For the best results on the 20/20 Diet plan, followers are advised to purchase McGraw’s book, which details the specific protocol and includes sections on managing your mindset during weight loss. 

What to Eat
  • 20/20 “power foods”

  • Animal proteins

  • Dairy products

  • Starchy and non-starchy vegetables

  • Fruit and fried fruit

  • Fish and seafood

  • Healthy fats

What Not to Eat
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars

  • Fast food

  • "Junk" food

20/20 “Power Foods”

This group includes the core foods on the 20/20 Diet, which are thought to increase the thermic effect of food and burn a lot of energy during digestion, according to McGraw. 

Starchy and Non-Starchy Vegetables

Some veggies are included in the 20/20 power foods, and you can eat all the vegetables you like in the later phases of the plan. 

Fruit and Dried Fruit

This power food group includes select fruits and dried fruits, but you can include additional varieties after phase one of the plan.

Fish and Seafood

McGraw encourages consuming fish and seafood throughout the entire diet. Cod is also one of the power foods. Fish and seafood provide ample vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids.  

Animal Protein

You can add proteins such as chicken or turkey breast and lean ground beef into your diet after the first phase.

Dairy Products

Yogurt is one of the 20/20 power foods, and you can also eat cheese and drink milk later in the program if you want to. 

Healthy Fats

Nuts and seeds, avocados, olives, and cooking oils are encouraged on the 20/20 Diet.

Refined Carbs and Sugars

While not completely off-limits in the later phases of the diet plan, McGraw recommends avoiding foods with simple carbs and added sugars as much as possible.

Fast Food

Part of McGraw’s philosophy with the 20/20 Diet is avoiding old habits that may have contributed to weight gain, such as frequenting your favorite fast-food restaurants. 

McGraw advises refraining from foods that trigger “free-for-all eating,” such as processed snacks that come in wrappers, bags, and boxes.

Sample Shopping List

Phase one of the 20/20 Diet emphasizes the list of 20 power foods before more foods are introduced later on. The following sample shopping list provides suggestions for getting started on the plan. Note that this shopping list is not all-inclusive, and if you choose to follow this diet there may be other foods that you prefer.

  • Dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens, bok choy)
  • Apples, dried plums, prunes, raisins, and other whole fruits such as berries
  • Chickpeas, lentils, and tofu
  • Cod, salmon, tuna
  • Chicken and turkey breast
  • Eggs
  • Rye bread
  • Yogurt
  • Coconut oil, olive oil
  • Almonds, pistachios, peanut butter
  • Mustard
  • Green tea
  • Whey powder

Sample Meal Plan

The 20/20 protocol involves four meals a day spaced four hours apart. The first phase is the most restrictive, which could make meal planning tricky. The following sample meal plan offers suggestions for the first two phases of the diet. Note that this meal plan is not all-inclusive, and if you do choose to follow the 20/20 Diet there may be other meals that you prefer.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Includes a variety of foods after the first phase

  • Encourages exercise

  • Emphasizes hydration

  • Accounts for mental health

Cons
  • One-size-fits-all approach

  • Too structured for some

  • Questionable approaches to weight loss

As with all diets, the 20/20 Diet has its benefits and drawbacks. Review the pros and cons associated with this plan to determine if it's the right choice for you.

Pros

Includes a Variety of Foods 

While the first phase of the 20/20 Diet limits you to just 20 foods, your options open up after those first five days. The other phases encourage a variety of healthy foods, from animal proteins to starches to vegetables. McGraw doesn’t completely discourage treats and processed foods, but he does stipulate that any “sensible splurges” should be few and far between (no more than twice a week) and limited in calories, which is reasonable nutrition advice.

Encourages Exercise

The 20/20 Diet provides exercise tips on top of nutritional recommendations, which is something that not all diet plans offer. In particular, McGraw suggests getting three to four hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week and two to three hours of vigorous exercise. If you meet both minimums, you’ll engage in at least five hours of exercise per week, and up to seven if you meet the maximums. 

Encourages Hydration

Additionally, the 20/20 Diet provides hydration recommendations. While everyone needs to drink different amounts of water based on their body size, activity level, medical conditions, and other factors, aiming for eight to 10 glasses (as suggested in the 20/20 Diet) makes for a good goal. 

Accounts for Mental Health

Though McGraw is not a registered dietitian, he does have experience helping his clients manage their weight. McGraw uses his knowledge of mindset, motivation, and other psychological factors to provide weight loss tips.

McGraw touches on mental health as it relates to weight loss. Your mental state can affect your ability to lose or maintain your weight, as weight loss is often more complicated than “calories in, calories out.”

Cons

One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Nutrition experts agree that weight loss is a highly individual process. Successful weight loss requires customization to a person’s health status, activity level, current lifestyle, medical conditions, past eating habits (e.g., disordered eating), and much more. Plans like the 20/20 Diet assume that everyone can lose weight following the same plan, which just isn’t accurate.

Too Structured for Some

The advice to “eat every four hours” could be too regimented for some people. With life being as busy as it is, it’s hard to keep track of exactly when you eat. This strategy neglects the concept of intuitive eating. What if you’re not hungry four hours after your last meal? What if you’re ravenous two hours after your last meal? It’s not always a smart idea to ignore hunger cues just to stick to the rules of a diet. 

Questionable Approaches to Weight Loss

In "The 20/20 Diet" book, McGraw provides tips and tricks to help people avoid dieting pitfalls, but these tricks won’t work for everyone in the long term. For example, McGraw suggests brushing your teeth when you’re craving junk food, but adhering to strategies like this can alter your ability to identify your natural hunger cues.

Your cravings might be telling you something important. Perhaps your body needs carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores after a workout, or maybe you’re just hungry.

Is the 20/20 Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The 20/20 Diet shares similar characteristics with other weight loss plans. For instance, the Dr. Oz 21-Day Diet, another diet created by a TV personality, serves as a quick reboot, detox, or cleanse, none of which typically result in long-term weight loss.

Similar to the 20/20 Diet, the Zero Belly Diet centers around “power foods,” although on this diet, there are only nine power foods. There's also the South Beach Diet, which follows a phased approach similar to the 20/20 plan and groups foods into “allowed” and “avoid” categories. However, this strategy can be detrimental to your relationship with food.  

The 2020–2025 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods including fruits and vegetables, grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein, and healthy fats. The key recommendations in the federal guidelines are as follows:

  • "Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts"

A benefit of the 20/20 Diet is that it includes a variety of foods from different food groups during phases three and four. Even during the first two phases, the 20 power foods include dairy, fish, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and protein, though the diet does lack in whole grains and overall variety.

For those seeking to lose weight, it helps to understand calorie consumption and energy expenditure. Everyone has different calorie needs, which are based on factors such as age, sex, weight, height, body composition, medical conditions, and level of physical activity. While a target of 2,000 calories per day is often used as a general measurement, you may need more or fewer calories to reach your weight goals. This calculator can provide you with an estimate.

Once you move into phases three and four of the 20/20 Diet plan, you can start to add in more foods to meet the USDA recommendations for a healthy, balanced diet.

Health Benefits

The restrictive nature of the 20/20 Diet combined with regular exercise will likely create a calorie deficit, which is typically needed for weight loss. Despite that many healthy foods are eliminated during the first phase of the plan, the restrictions start to ease up in the remaining phases. The plan becomes more nutritionally balanced as more healthy, whole foods are encouraged.

Health Risks

Though there are no common risks associated with the 20/20 Diet, any diet that is centered on restricted eating can lead to disordered eating habits and a strained relationship with food. Cutting out foods and following a regimented eating schedule may lead to binge-eating behavior or other unhealthy eating habits. Those who have had an eating disorder or could be at risk for developing one should avoid trying this diet.

A Word From Verywell 

Not everyone has the same nutritional needs and weight loss goals, which means a one-size-fits-all approach like the 20/20 Diet is simply not going to work for everyone. If you’re interested in following a weight loss plan, it’s important to thoroughly research your options before committing. Your weight loss journey is entirely unique and you may have to experiment with different eating patterns until you find one that works best for you. Plans like the 20/20 Diet may not be effective in the long run, especially if you don’t do well with food restrictions. 

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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