For the long haul, start small

When it comes to managing our weight there is no one size fits all approach - a method that has helped your friend lose and keep weight off might not work for you. This can be frustrating, but our bodies are all unique and work in different ways. To increase the chance of finding a way that works for you, it’s important to know about the different methods available. One way that many people find easy to use is the ‘small change approach.’

What is the ‘small change approach’?

This weight management method is designed for people who want to either lose weight or prevent weight gain. It can also help people to avoid putting weight back on after they have lost it.

It recommends decreasing the number of calories eaten and/or increasing the number of calories burned by about 100-200 kcal per day. That’s equivalent to eating one or two fewer chocolate biscuits and/or going for an extra 20-30 minute brisk walk each day.

How does it work?

Losing weight, and maintaining this weight loss, can be difficult for several reasons. Losing weight can trigger increased production of hunger hormones and can slow your metabolism, making it difficult to resist overeating. It’s also hard to maintain the lifestyle changes that you may have used to lose weight over the long-term, such as restricting your food or fasting on some days, which makes weight regain likely.

Maintaining big changes to our diet and physical activity (such as eating 500 fewer calories per day or daily gym workouts) is tricky because our motivation naturally changes over time. During times when motivation is high, making these big changes is a lot easier and may result in rapid weight loss, which can feel very rewarding. However, during periods of lower motivation, it becomes much tougher to maintain big lifestyle changes. If we don’t continue to maintain these big lifestyle changes, we will stop losing weight (which can feel very unrewarding when we step on the scales) or we could even start regaining lost weight over time.

Making small changes to our diet and/or physical activity may be easier to achieve and so will fit more easily into our everyday life. For example, eating 100-200 fewer calories per day will require only small adaptations to meals and is easy to stick to even if you are responsible for feeding others or if you are eating out. Small changes that fit easily into everyday life may be easier to maintain, even during periods of lower motivation.

What does the science say?

Small changes made consistently over time may have a greater impact on weight management in the long-term than large changes that cannot be sustained. Research conducted at Loughborough University supports the use of a small change approach for weight management. In one study, people reported it was helpful for weight management, and in another study people were found to gain over a kilo less than those that didn’t follow the approach over the course of 12 weeks.

Our top 5 small changes

If you are interested in trying you could start by making some of the changes listed below:

  1. Shed the spread: when making sandwiches, we often use more spread than we need. When using things like butter, mayonnaise or ketchup, try to use just a little bit less than you normally would – these types of changes can make a difference over time.
  2. Skip the chip: chips served as a side dish alongside main meals can add hundreds of unnecessary calories. When eating out, avoid ordering chips as a side, and perhaps try a lighter option such as a salad.
  3. Hop off and walk a stop: if you are travelling by bus or other public transport, try getting off one stop before your destination to gain some extra steps.
  4. Think about your drink: you would be surprised with how many calories are in hot chocolates and coffees. Try switching from a cappuccino to an americano to cut down your calories, or ask for skimmed milk if you prefer a milky coffee.
  5. Walk and talk: when someone calls you for a chat or you meet a friend for coffee, try heading out for a walk while speaking to them. This can be a quick and easy way to increase your physical activity and burn extra calories.

Dr Henrietta Graham, Research Associate in the Centre for Lifestyle Behaviour and Medicine, Loughborough University

For more information about the small change approach, visit the Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour’s website or email