Small Lifestyle Changes Add Up

Shifting your focus to small changes in your diet and exercise program may be the way to go to reap big rewards.

Small ahanges in diet and exercise make a big difference.

Small changes in diet and exercise make a big difference.

iStockphoto.com/Digital Skillet

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Changing behavior to eat more healthfully and to exercise more can seem overwhelming to many consumers. That is why the “small changes” approach, supported by a joint task force of the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), the Institute of Food Technologists, and the International Food Information Council, has the potential for big rewards.

“By shifting our focus to small changes in diet and physical activity, we can prevent weight gain and potentially reduce the magnitude of the obesity problem,” says James Hill, president of the ASN. “Large, permanent changes in diet and activity are much harder to implement and sustain.”

Despite heightened awareness of the global obesity epidemic, long-term success in addressing the problem has been limited. Hill believes that this lack of long-term success is due in part to the difficulty people have in maintaining healthful dietary and physical activity patterns in an environment that discourages physical activity and encourages excessive energy consumption. He believes that because of these challenges, we should shift our focus from weight loss to promoting small changes in diet and physical activity that can initially prevent further weight gain. Once obesity rates are stabilized, over time they could decrease gradually. Of course, the environmental factors that contribute to a lack of success in solving the obesity crisis must be addressed as well for long-term success.

According to Hill, the “small changes” approach will work for a number of reasons. For example, small changes are more feasible to achieve and sustain. Even though they will not produce as great an impact on body weight, successful small changes are better than large ones that are not sustained. Second, Hill points out that small changes in diet and physical activity might be sufficient to stop gradual weight gain based on data showing that obesity can be attributed to a very slight daily discrepancy between energy intake and expenditure. Likewise, small changes could also reverse this trend. Third, achieving small changes in lifestyle could stimulate people to make additional small changes, leading to an even greater impact.

Hill also recommends eating breakfast. “A lot of people aren’t hungry when they wake up because they are consuming too many calories after dinner,” says Hill. “It may take a while – even a month – for the body to get used to shifting calorie consumption from after dinner to breakfast, but it is an effective small change.”

The small-changes approach has already been widely embraced by government agencies, nonprofit organizations and public health associations. In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a summit on obesity with its MyPyramid partners, highlighting and promoting “small changes” to achieve the goals of MyPyramid. The food industry also has embraced the small-changes approach – one example is by addressing portion size with snacks in 100-calorie packages.

A few examples of small changes:

1. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

2. Walk an extra 2,000 steps a day.

3. Choose low-calorie beverages and foods.

4. Try brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.

5. Don’t take second helpings.