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Small and Incremental Changes for a Lasting Effect

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 6, 2023

“This is the year I’m going to lose weight and start eating more healthfully.”


What a cliche, right?!


For many of us, the diet either begins tomorrow–or ends tomorrow. Often the theory of new beginnings is exciting and motivating, but in almost no time the energy starts to fade and the resolution falls to the side. So what’s the trick to avoid falling into this oh-so-classic pattern?


At the risk of disappointing the big planners and dreamers out there, studies show that making small incremental changes, although less exciting, will often lead to better long-term results. As well as being more sustainable over time, achieving these small goals can stimulate people to make additional changes as they experience success over time. 

An analysis of the general US population weight gain has shown that many people gain slow and steady weight over time because of small daily choices where they are eating a little bit more than what they need for their everyday energy. It naturally follows that the reverse pattern would be the same. Making small healthy choices can counteract this and prevent that slow weight gain.


There is also hope that a small-changes approach can slowly seep into a culture and environment that promotes obesity. Whether it’s competition that encourages a “supersizing” culture or a lack of physical activity in our work life, lifestyles and culture have changed in a direction that can help drive obesity. Of course, societal cultural changes take time–but we can recognize and celebrate positive changes that are being made that would encourage companies to continue in that direction.

The “slow and steady wins the race” theory applies to both diet and exercise, and there are many small changes that can be made to your physical activity routine that can be incorporated into your daily schedule without too much upheaval. Going to the gym five times a week may not be sustainable, but taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator? Perhaps that’s something you can do. When making changes, it’s important to pick something small and achievable. Once it’s become part of your routine then recognize your success and add on another small change!


Sometimes it’s hard to know where the changes can even be made, so it can be helpful to examine your current routine–maybe there’s a snack or food that you can cut out and would barely notice. Sometimes exchanging a food item for a healthier option can give you the same feeling of satisfaction without feeling like you had to give up something. Just looking up “food switch” or “food substitution” can give you ideas of foods you can switch out for healthier options, whether it’s a snack or ingredients in a recipe.


As well as these direct changes, there are many small changes that can be made as well as being more mindful and paying attention to the choices that you make. Click this link for a great list of suggestions


Whatever you do, remember–health is a long-term project. And if Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s unlikely that the “new you” will be created in a day either.



  • James O Hill, Can a small-changes approach help address the obesity epidemic? A report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 477–484,; Lutes, L. D., Daiss, S. R., Barger, S. D., Read, M., Steinbaugh, E., & Winett, R. A. (2012).
  • Small Changes Approach Promotes Initial and Continued Weight Loss with a Phone-Based Follow-Up: Nine-Month Outcomes from ASPIRES II. American Journal of Health Promotion, 26(4), 235–238.; Lesley D. Lutes, Richard A. Winett, Steven D. Barger, Janet R. Wojcik, William G. Herbert, Sharon M. Nickols-Richardson, Eileen S. Anderson
  • Small Changes in Nutrition and Physical Activity Promote Weight Loss and Maintenance: 3-Month Evidence from the ASPIRE Randomized Trial, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Volume 35, Issue 3, June 2008, Pages 351–357,;
  • Small Changes in Dietary Sugar and Physical Activity as an Approach to Preventing Excessive Weight Gain: The America on the Move Family Study, Susan J. Rodearmel, Holly R. Wyatt, Nanette Stroebele, Sheila M. Smith, Lorraine G. Ogden, James O. Hill, Pediatrics Oct 2007, 120 (4) e869-e879; DOI:
  • Obesity and the Environment: Where Do We Go from Here? By James O. Hill, Holly R. Wyatt, George W. Reed, John C. Peters. Science07 Feb 2003 : 853-855

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