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.

What Is the 20/20 Diet?

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 book, "The 20/20 Diet: Turn Your Weight Loss Vision Into Reality," is aimed at people who have struggled with yo-yo dieting (weight cycling) and weight regain.

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

The 7-Day Diet Plan

Here is an example of what you might eat for three meals per day during a week on the first phase of the 20/20 diet plan. Note the restrictive nature of this plan, particularly in this phase; followers are limited to only 20 "power foods."

  • Day 1: Green tea, apple, almonds, boiled eggs; leafy green salad with chickpeas and olive oil dressing, rye toast with coconut oil; cod with sauteed leafy greens, lentils with mustard and olive oil
  • Day 2: Yogurt with prunes and pistachios; tofu cooked in olive oil, leafy green salad with boiled eggs, olive oil, and mustard dressing; scrambled eggs, rye toast with coconut oil, apple
  • Day 3: Apple with peanut butter, rye toast with coconut oil, boiled egg; chickpea salad with dried plums in a yogurt dressing; cod, steamed greens, boiled lentils, green tea
  • Day 4: Scrambled eggs, rye toast with coconut oil, prunes; tofu cooked in olive oil, leafy green salad; cod with sauteed leafy greens, lentils with mustard and olive oil
  • Day 5: Yogurt and whey protein shake, apple; cod flaked with mustard and olive oil on rye; leafy green salad with seared tofu, pistachios, diced apple
  • Day 6: Peanut butter and yogurt with pistachios; leafy green salad with cod and lentils; tofu cooked in olive oil, sauteed greens, chickpeas
  • Day 7: Whey protein, yogurt, apple, and peanut butter smoothie; egg salad with mustard and olive oil on rye bread, leafy green salad with olive oil, pistachios, chickpeas; cod with almond crust, sauteed greens with pistachios and apples

What You Can Eat

What you can eat depends on the phase of the diet you are in. For phase one, you may only consume the 20 "power foods."

The 20 Power Foods

The entire diet's premise is based on consuming the 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.

What You Cannot Eat

While no foods are strictly off-limits, there are foods that should ideally be avoided.

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.

  • White bread
  • Baked goods
  • Candy
  • White pasta

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.

How to Prepare the 20/20 Diet & Tips

The 20/20 Diet is based on the concept of thermogenesis. When something is thermogenic, it means it tends to produce heat. Concerning 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. 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 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.

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. 

Pros of the 20/20 Diet

As with all diets, the 20/20 Diet has its benefits and drawbacks. There are several aspects of the plan that align with expert recommendations on weight loss.

  • 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: 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 a day (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.
  • May lead to weight loss: 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. Although 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.

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 of the 20/20 Diet

Along with the pros, it's important to review the disadvantages associated with this plan to determine if it's the right choice for you.

  • 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 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 track 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 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.
  • May cause an unhealthy relationship with food: Any diet 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.

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 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:

  • "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, at least 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.

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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3 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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