In 2005, IFT President Margaret Lawson appointed several IFT members to serve on a Working Group (WG) to address the interface between food science and nutrition. This group was the result of a successful forum held in New Orleans and ongoing dialogue with the IFT Nutrition Division. The purpose of the WG was to improve understanding and bridge the gap between nutrition and food science professionals to meet the recommendations set forth by the dietary guidelines. One particular goal was to create a forum for food and nutrition professionals to work together on issues management, proactive communication of the opportunities afforded by food science, and identification of a common research agenda.

As the WG began its deliberations, it soon became evident that our colleagues in the American Society for Nutrition should be engaged in the discussion. Therefore, IFT leadership approached the American Society for Nutrition to appoint a complementary group to expand the WG, and work on the agenda was initiated. Recognizing the importance of information and communication, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) was also invited to participate in the deliberations of the Working Group.

It was not long after discussions were initiated that the WG identified an opportunity to make a contribution to reduce the obesity epidemic. It came in the form of the realization that large changes in a person's dietary habits or exercise would ultimately lead to reduction in a person's weight and consequently reduce obesity but that also small changes in a person's diet or exercise could have a significant impact on weight gain and maintenance. The net result of this realization is a paper recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Hill 2009) as a report from the Working Group authored by James Hill entitled, “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.” In our opinion this is such a significant development to assist in addressing the vexing obesity epidemic that we are offering this brief commentary in the hope that further exposure will motivate individual and corporate entities to consider, adopt, and promote the “small changes” approach.

In the paper, Hill emphatically points out that the obesity epidemic is worldwide afflicting developing and developed economies and that obesity rates continue to climb in most countries (citing Wang and Lobstein 2006). He correctly concludes that there has been no real long-term success in addressing the problem primarily because we have an environment that discourages healthy dietary and physical activity patterns (citing publications such as Hill and others 2003). He goes on to describe that there have been attempts to utilize small changes in behavior to stabilize and/or reduce weight gain such as the use of pedometers and utilizing the energy balance to stem weight gain. Furthermore, industry has responded to consumer demands and developed portion-controlled products, convenience packaging for fruits and vegetables, and reduced-calorie products.

The idea of small lifestyle changes that could produce results that are permanent was suggested by Hill and others in 2003 in their paper in Science. They reasoned that small changes are more likely to be adopted as permanent changes in lifestyle and diet than are large changes. These small changes would result in controlling weight gain and may eventually lead to reduction in weight.

Hill goes on in his paper to address the following questions:

  • • 
    Can understanding the energy gap help in developing strategies to address obesity?
  • • 
    Is there evidence to suggest that a “small changes” approach to lifestyle modification might be more successful than a “big changes” approach?
  • • 
    Has the “small changes” approach been used successfully to reduce or prevent excessive weight gain?
  • • 
    Can the “small changes” approach be applied to modifying environmental determinants of obesity?

Citing the most recent studies that demonstrate the approach, Hill presents compelling evidence that a “small changes” approach works in the short term and has the potential to lead to long-term stabilization and/or reduction of obesity rates. The challenge for each of us, where appropriate, is to adopt the “small changes” approach in our own lives. Furthermore, the food industry can increase its activity in, for example, portion control and caloric density.

This concept of has already been embraced by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) along with the American Heart Association, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association. In fact, on January 14, 2009, USDA held a summit with their Partnering with MyPyramid partners on obesity, highlighting and promoting “small changes” to achieve the goals of MyPyramid. In addition, the small changes principles are incorporated in other government diet and physical activity guidance, such as the U.S. Health and Human Services web site entitled “Small Step Tips” (

In our opinion, since both government and industry are currently carrying out some activities around the “small changes” approach, it should be possible to heighten the awareness among consumers. For example, government agencies could adopt the strategy in additional programs and industry could adopt an industry -wide initiative in advertising and product development. Finally, the fast food and restaurant sector can step up its role in assisting consumers in making wise food choices.

We were pleased to be asked by IFT to be a part of this Working Group and feel that significant progress has been made in the collaborations between our respective societies. Most importantly, the message that has emerged is that “small changes” should make a big impact if adopted further by the general public, the food industry, health professionals and organizations, and governmental agencies.

The message is clear; the consequence of inaction is catastrophic; and we individually are part of the solution. Small changes can have a big effect!


  1. Top of page
  2. References