It’s a perennial cycle: You notice that your favorite jeans are a little snugger than they were last year. You get winded after a flight of stairs. Or maybe you’re just feeling a renewed commitment to well-being after a holiday sugar bender. Then come the promises— a three-day juice cleanse, the treadmill every day for a month, no sugar (or is it no carbs?) ever. But then real life sneaks up on you—and before you know it, you’ve abandoned the entire plan.
Turns out, there’s nothing wrong with your willpower. Instead, you might be biting off more than you can chew (no pun intended). The reason diets bomb so often is the all-or-nothing extremism people tend to apply to weight loss. “Our culture gives people two options: Take big action or do nothing,” says James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., a professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston, and the author of Changing for Good. When the big action inevitably fails, people become demoralized and go back to doing nothing.
“The rare individual can make a dramatic lifestyle change and stick to that very quickly,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., the dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. For the rest of us mortals, the answer to sustainable weight loss probably lies in the middle ground—making small, incremental changes or meaningful shifts that can make a difference, without affecting quality of life.
Research shows that the trick to sticking to a nutrition and fitness plan—and seeing results—might be finding the one small change that works for you, explains Lesley Lutes, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, who has published four studies on a “small change” approach to weight loss. “There is no one small change that works for everybody,” she says.
She treats patients in her clinical trials and practice with a program that works like this: For one week, participants record everything they eat and track their steps with a Fitbit. They then look at those records for places to make three to five small diet changes of about 100 calories each, meaning they consistently consume several hundred fewer calories a day. (Think reducing the amount of milk in your coffee or taking the cheese off your salad.)
The great news: In Lutes’s first study, overweight and obese volunteers who participated in the small-change program lost seven more pounds in the first four months than did those who received traditional weight-loss treatment, which included regular meetings with a nutritionist to learn about U.S. government guidelines on diet and fitness. Plus, they kept it off in the following months.
Lutes says that, according to patients, this less restrictive approach is more manageable and maintainable over time compared with trying to follow a specific diet plan. Even better: When you succeed at a small goal—rather than failing at a big one—you feel motivated to tackle further goals, says Prochaska. Which means, in the long run, that small changes can add up to big changes. Inspired? Here are 15 small changes for big results.