What Is the 20/20 Diet?

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The 20/20 Diet created by Dr. Phil McGraw (yes, that Dr. Phil) is an interesting diet based on the concept of “power foods” that purportedly take a lot of energy to digest. It’s meant to help people lose weight, but it could wind up backfiring. In this article, learn everything there is to know about the 20/20 Diet, from pros and cons to everything you can and can’t eat.

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.

Background

The 20/20 diet is celebrity-endorsed—celebrity-created, actually—by Dr. Phil McGraw, the host of the popular daytime talk show Dr. Phil. McGraw, while certainly a high-profile and intelligent person in his area of expertise, isn’t exactly a nutrition expert. 

McGraw holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in forensic psychology. His show, podcast, and books all cover various mental health topics, appropriate and expected considering McGraw’s expertise in mental and emotional health. 

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, which dives into the brain science behind weight loss. The overarching angle of The Ultimate Weight Solution is that people who are overweight think about food and dieting all wrong. 

In McGraw’s more recent book, The 20/20 Diet: Turn Your Weight Loss Vision Into Reality, he again conveys a no-nonsense tone about weight loss, targeting desperate dieters who have struggled with yo-yo dieting and weight regain. Released in 2015, the book quickly became trendy and the 20/20 diet was one of the most popular diets in 2015 and 2016, despite the fact that McGraw isn’t a credentialed nutrition professional. 

How It Works

The 20/20 diet is based on the concept of thermogenics. 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. 

To that end, the 20/20 diet emphasizes 20 “power foods” that supposedly take up 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

This theory sounds nice, but 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 these 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 portions. 

What to Eat

Compliant Foods
  • 20/20 “power foods”

  • Animal proteins

  • Dairy products

  • Starchy and non-starchy vegetables

  • Fruit and fried fruit

  • Fish and seafood

  • Healthy fats

Non-Compliant Foods
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars

  • “Junk” food

  • Fast food

20/20 “power foods”: This group includes the core foods on the 20/20 diet, which are thought to burn a lot of energy during digestion, according to McGraw. 

Animal proteins: You can add proteins such as chicken breasts 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. 

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: The 20/20 power food group includes some fruit and dried fruit, and you can include additional varieties after phase one of the diet.

Fish and seafood: McGraw encourages consuming fish and seafood throughout the entire diet plan. Cod is one of the 20/20 power foods. Fish and seafood provide ample vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids.  

Healthy fats: Nuts and seeds, avocados, olives, and cooking oils are encouraged on the 20/20 diet.

Refined carbohydrates and sugars: While not completely off-limits in the later phases of the diet plan, McGraw recommends avoiding foods with simple carbs and sugars.

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

Fast food: Part of McGraw’s philosophy with the 20/20 diet is avoiding old habits that caused you to gain weight, such as frequenting your favorite fast-food restaurants. 

Recommended Timing

The 20/20 diet consists of four distinct phases. During all phases, you’re supposed to eat four meals, four hours apart.

Phase 1: The Five-Day Boost

During phase one of the 20/20 diet, you only eat the 20 foods designated as power foods. 

Phase 2: The Five-Day Sustain

During phase two of the 20/20 diet, 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. The book focuses on daily lifestyle tips and encourages you to not allow a busy lifestyle to get in the way of your nutrition. 

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.

Resources and Tips

For the best results on the 20/20 diet plan, consider buying McGraw’s book. The book details the specifics of the plan and includes sections on managing your mindset during weight loss. 

Modifications

While the first two phases of the 20/20 diet don’t allow for much modification, the diet gets more flexible once you enter phases three and four. 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 other eating plan.

People who eat a vegan diet may struggle with the 20/20 diet, especially in the first two phases, because the 20/20 diet encourages the consumption of yogurt, eggs, and whey powder. While there are still plenty of other foods to choose from, vegan dieters will have to modify recipes that include animal products.

Pros
  • Includes a Variety of Foods

  • Encourages Exercise

  • Encourages Hydration

  • Accounts for Mental Health

Cons
  • One-Size-Fits-All Approach

  • Could Lead to Disordered Eating Habits

  • Too Structured for Some

  • Relies on Questionable Approaches to Weight Loss

Pros

Includes a Variety of Foods 

While the first phase of the 20/20 diet limits you to 20 foods, your options open up after those first five days. The 20/20 diet encourages people to consume 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 your “sensible splurges” should be few and far between (no more than twice a week) and limited in calories. 

Encourages Exercise

The 20/20 diet provides exercise recommendations on top of nutritional recommendations, which is something that not all diet plans help with. 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 (like 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 mental factors to provide weight loss tips. Your mental health can greatly affect your ability to lose or maintain your weight, and weight loss is rarely a black-and-white situation of “calories in, calories out.” McGraw touches on mental health as it relates to weight loss is a nice touch and a learning opportunity. 

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 true. 

Could Lead to Disordered Eating Habits

Any diet can lead to disordered eating habits and a strained relationship with food. The 20/20 diet is no different. If you have a history of disordered eating, cutting out foods and restricting your eating schedule may lead to binge-eating behavior or other unhealthy eating habits. 

Too Structured for Some

The whole “eat every four hours” thing could be a bit too much for some people. With busy lives, it’s hard to keep track of exactly when we eat. Plus, this strategy completely 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 a good idea to blatantly ignore hunger cues just to stick to a diet. 

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

How It Compares

USDA Recommendations

The federal dietary recommendations include five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein. The key recommendations in the federal guidelines include:

  • “A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils
  • Limited saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and sodium”

One good thing about the 20/20 diet is it includes a variety of foods from different food groups. The 20 power foods alone include dairy, fish, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and protein, though the diet does lack in whole grains. 

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.

Anyone who wants to lose weight should have a basic understanding of calorie consumption and energy expenditure. Everyone has different calorie needs based on their height, weight, body composition, medical conditions, goals, and daily activity level. While 2,000 calories per day is used as a general measurement, you may need more or fewer calories to reach your weight goals.

Similar Diets

The Dr. Oz 21-Day Diet: Another diet created by a TV personality, Dr. Oz’s 21-day diet serves as a reboot, detox, or cleanse, none of which typically yield long-term weight loss results.


The Zero Belly Diet
: Like the 20/20 diet, the Zero Belly Diet centers around “power foods,” although on this diet, there are only nine power foods.


The South Beach Diet
: This diet follows a phased approach similar to the 20/20 diet and groups foods into “allowed” and “avoid” categories, which can be detrimental to your mental health-related to food.  

A Word From Verywell 

Not all diets are created equal. Nor do all people have the same needs and desires when it comes to nutrition. If you’re looking for a new diet to try, it’s important to thoroughly research your options before committing to one over another. Remember that your weight loss journey is entirely unique to you and you may have to experiment with different eating styles until you find one that sticks. Plans like the 20/20 diet may not be effective in the long run, especially if you don’t do well with food restriction. 

Read next: The GM Diet: Pros, Cons, and How It Works

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