The 20/20 diet is a weight loss diet created by television star Dr. Phil.
It prioritizes 20 “power foods” along with diet and psychological tips that are claimed to help you lose weight quickly.
Despite Dr. Phil’s long run as a celebrity, you may wonder if a former psychologist has the secret to weight loss and whether this diet is something you should try.
This article tells you all you need to know about the 20/20 diet, including whether it helps with weight loss, its benefits and downsides, and instructions on following it.
Diet review scorecard
- Overall score: 2.88
- Weight loss: 2.5
- Healthy eating: 3.25
- Sustainability: 2.75
- Whole body health: 3.25
- Nutrition quality: 3.5
- Evidence-based: 2
BOTTOM LINE: The 20/20 diet emphasizes eating mostly whole, nutrient-dense, filling foods and performing daily exercise to promote weight loss. That said, the initial phases are highly restrictive, unnecessary, and may be better off avoided.
In 2015, Dr. Phil McGraw — better known as Dr. Phil — released a book, “The 20/20 Diet: Turn Your Weight Loss Vision Into Reality,” to help struggling dieters achieve successful weight loss.
Dr. Phil has a PhD in clinical psychology and has hosted the daytime television show “Dr. Phil” since 2002.
The 20/20 diet is based on the thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the number of calories your body uses to digest, absorb, and utilize nutrients from food (
According to the book, 20 “power foods” require a lot of energy (calories) to process. So, the more calories you burn from eating these foods, the fewer net calories your body ends up taking in.
The diet includes four phases that gradually reintroduce foods restricted in the earlier phases. Along with this, it encourages various psychological tricks to prevent overeating, such as brushing your teeth when you’re hungry.
Collectively, the long list of food restrictions paired with psychology tips and regular exercise is believed to help you lose weight.
Created by Dr. Phil McGraw, the 20/20 diet is a four-phase diet that emphasizes eating from a list of 20 power foods believed to encourage weight loss.
The 20/20 diet consists of four main phases: the 5-day boost (phase 1), the 5-day sustain (phase 2), the 20-day attain (phase 3), and management (phase 4).
In addition, the diet encourages at least 3–4 hours of moderate intensity and 2–3 hours of high intensity exercise per week, totaling around 5–7 hours of exercise per week during all phases.
Phase 1: The 5-day boost
Phase 1 is considered the most difficult phase of the 20/20 diet. During this phase, you’re only allowed to eat 20 power foods believed to help kick-start the weight loss process. These include:
- coconut oil
- dried plums
- green tea
- leafy greens
- olive oil
- peanut butter
- whey protein powder
You must follow this phase for at least 5 days. Additionally, you must eat every 4 hours during waking hours.
Phase 2: The 5-day sustain
Phase 2 allows for some additional flexibility, though arguably is still very strict. During this phase, you may stray from the list of 20 power foods but must include at least two at every meal and snack.
Recommended foods to add include:
- brown rice
You must follow this phase for 5 days.
Phase 3: The 20-day attain
During phase 3, you’re allowed to introduce most foods back into your diet. That said, regular consumption of highly processed foods and foods high in simple carbohydrates is discouraged.
You may also introduce two “sensible splurges” per day to avoid cravings and overeating. According to the diet, a “sensible splurge” is any food you enjoy eating. However, you must keep it under 100 calories.
Ideal foods to introduce during this phase include:
- black beans
Phase 4: Management
After completing the first three phases, you enter the management phase to sustain any weight loss and lifestyle changes.
This phase is meant to occur indefinitely unless you gain weight, at which point you would return to phase 1.
Ideally, you would still follow the same eating patterns as phase 3 while also monitoring your weight regularly, avoiding emotional eating, and preventing a busy schedule from affecting your eating habits and exercise regimen.
During the four phases of the 20/20 diet, you start by eating solely from a list of 20 power foods and gradually reintroduce other foods. In addition, you learn psychological tips to prevent overeating and exercise regularly.
Though the first two phases are quite strict, there are fewer food restrictions in the third and fourth phases. Here are common foods allowed and discouraged:
- Power foods. You’re encouraged to eat two foods from this list at every meal and snack.
- Fruits and vegetables. Though some are restricted during the first two phases, you may reintroduce most fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and starchy vegetables in the third and fourth phases.
- Meat and poultry. You may introduce lean beef and chicken after phase 1.
- Dairy. Yogurt is included in the list of 20 power foods. You may include cheese, milk, and other dairy products in moderation during phases 3 and 4.
- Fish and seafood. Cod is one of the 20 power foods allowed during phase 1. After this, you may add other fish and seafood due to their high nutritional value.
- Healthy fats. Avocado, nuts, seeds, and oils are permitted during most phases of the diet.
- Simple sugars and refined carbs. These should be considered “sensible splurges” and kept to a minimum.
- Processed foods. Foods commonly found in boxes, wrappers, or bags should be limited. Examples include chips, crackers, and pastries.
- Fast food and takeout. The diet advises against any habit that previously led to weight gain. It advises to limit ready-made food and takeout to rare occasions.
- Beverages. Drink 8–10 glasses of water daily. Enjoy other beverages in moderation.
Ultimately, the goal of the 20/20 diet is to stick with foods that are filling, low in calories, and minimally processed.
The first two phases of the diet have a number of food restrictions. However, few foods are off-limits during the last two phases.
Though you may lose weight on the diet, it’s not for the reasons the book claims.
The main idea of the diet is to eat foods with a high thermic effect. In turn, this should lead to fewer net calories being consumed.
While the TEF contributes to roughly 10% of total daily calories burned, there’s no evidence that the 20 power foods advised specifically lead to greater calorie expenditure (
In fact, some foods included later on in the diet would actually have a higher TEF, including high protein foods like chicken and beef and high fiber vegetables and whole grains (
Rather, people likely lose weight on the diet because they’re consuming more whole, high satiety foods that are lower in calories, and they’re simultaneously increasing their physical activity.
Collectively, this results in the calorie deficit necessary for weight loss.
The 20 power foods are based on the premise that they have a high calorie-burning effect. Despite this claim, most people lose weight on the diet by achieving a calorie deficit.
In addition to weight loss, there may be a few other benefits to the 20/20 diet.
All foods in moderation
Besides during the first 10 days, which are highly restrictive, the 20/20 diet allows all foods to be enjoyed in moderation.
Technically, no food is completely off-limits, which helps reduce the likelihood of bingeing, due to suppressed cravings. That said, limiting “sensible splurges” like dessert to 100 calories may not be satisfying or sustainable.
This diet encourages regular exercise, which is an important component of good health and weight loss success.
That said, those who don’t regularly exercise may want to consult a healthcare professional and ease into exercise to prevent injuries.
Focuses on the mental aspect of eating
Unlike many diets that focus entirely on eating low calorie meals, the 20/20 diet includes various tips to help you better manage your eating habits.
Trained in psychology, Dr. Phil emphasizes the importance of the mental psyche and its contribution to overeating and weight gain.
In his book, he dives into the psychology of eating, such as emotional eating and environmental influences that drive people to eat.
These tips may help you better understand the reasons behind your food choices and use various strategies to encourage healthy eating behaviors.
Benefits of the diet include eating food in moderation, paying attention to the reasons behind food choice, and encouraging regular exercise.
Despite some benefits, there are numerous downsides to the 20/20 diet.
Though the diet allows for flexibility past phase 2, the first two phases of the diet are unnecessary. Considering both phases in total last 10 days, any weight loss achieved is most likely water weight than actual fat loss (
Instead, introducing the concept of moderation from the get-go and encouraging regular exercise would establish better long-term behaviors without unnecessary food restrictions.
In addition, the 20 power foods are arbitrary, and many other foods actually have a higher TEF while being more nutritious and filling.
May not be sustainable
Despite having a final management stage, the diet states you may need to return to phase 1 if you regain any weight.
This may suggest the diet is not sustainable long term, since participants may not stick with the recommendations in the final phase — potentially due to its low calorie nature and limitations on “splurge” foods.
May lead to disordered eating
This diet involves cutting out large groups of food and slowly adding them back in. For some, this can lead to a negative relationship with food (
Despite claiming to embrace intuitive eating (eating based on your physiological hunger), the diet has strict rules that entirely go against the premise of intuitive eating (
For example, the diet has a rigid guideline of eating every 4 hours. Yet, some people need to eat every 2 hours while others can go much longer without feeling hungry.
This goes against listening to hunger cues and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (
Despite the many factors that may lead to weight gain — such as age, genetics, history of dieting, and health conditions — this diet is a blanket approach to weight loss.
Rather than designing a weight loss program based on each person’s unique needs and circumstances, it assumes the diet will work for everyone, despite research suggesting weight loss is highly individual (
Major downsides of the 20/20 diet include its long list of food restrictions, problematic diet messaging, and one-size-fits-all approach.
The 20/20 diet is not for everyone.
If you’re looking for a straightforward diet to follow that still allows for some flexibility, then you may benefit from it. However, it’s probably best to skip phases 1 and 2 and go directly to phase 3.
That said, if you have a history of disordered eating or struggle with restrictive diets, you’re better off avoiding it.
Instead, the best diet is one that doesn’t vilify food and includes a variety of whole, minimally processed foods rich in fiber, protein, healthy fats, and whole grains.
Additionally, be sure to focus on other aspects of health such as exercise and stress management.
The 20/20 diet is a weight loss diet created by television star and psychologist Dr. Phil.
There are some positive aspects of the diet, such as eating mostly minimally processed foods, paying attention to your reasons for eating, and regular exercise. Collectively, these may help you lose weight.
However, the diet is very restrictive for the first two phases, which may lead to a disordered relationship with food. Further, it limits treats to 100-calorie servings, which may not be satisfying or sustainable.
Instead of trying the 20/20 diet, you may be better off focusing on sustainable healthy lifestyle habits like eating whole, nutrient-dense foods, exercising regularly, managing stress, and developing a positive relationship with food.