The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Gradual Changes Can Improve Diet

Gradual Changes Can Improve Diet

Health and Wellness

December 28, 2008

The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides recommended food intake patterns for all consumers according to their gender, age and activity level. But adherence to the USDA’s recommended dietary guidelines is low – some estimates suggest as few as three to four percent of Americans abide by them.

Betsy A. Hornick, author of a new diet study from American Dietetic Association, says the reason for this low level of compliance is not for lack of trying. Generally, consumers want to meet MyPyramid goals. However, they may be having trouble finding attainable ways to do so.

“Consumer research shows that Americans are overwhelmed and confused about conflicting advice on diet and nutrition. They want realistic and personalized guidance to help them adopt more healthful eating habits, but they don’t know how to do it,” says Hornick.

To address this issue, Hornick and other researchers developed weekly meal plans for women aged 31 to 50, and found that gradual changes in diet led to an increase in the average baseline score on the 2005 Healthy Eating Index by more than 50 points.

When researchers compared the results of eating from two menus – a baseline menu representing actual food intake patterns for the study group, and a transitional “small steps approach” menu, consisting of incremental changes and reflecting MyPyramid goals – they found that slight, practical changes in food choices can lead to substantial improvements in overall diet quality.

In the transitional menu, beans were added to salads and soups to increase vegetable servings. Likewise, regular ice cream was replaced with low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt. Sodas were replaced with yogurt drinks, ground beef was replaced with lean ground beef, and so on.

Averaged over seven days, these types of gradual changes, including the replacement of fatty foods with lower-fat versions and an increase in food variety, dramatically improved diet quality. Target menus were able to reduce sodium intake by 32%, while bringing saturated fat levels to the recommended level of below 10% of energy intake.

“Small changes can add up to big results,” says Hornick. “You can take it at your own pace and it doesn't require drastic changes. Implementing three to five small changes per week helps improve eating habits gradually and consumers can find the changes that work best for their lifestyles.”

Hornick says that slow changes in diet are more likely to sustain overall improved healthful eating habits and patterns. There are limitations to the ADA analysis, however, she says. While menu modeling can demonstrate significant diet improvements, the success of actually implementing such changes, small or otherwise, is harder to measure because in real life there are so many variables that influence food choices and their effects on health.

Even as theory, though, these findings have the potential to influence and inspire improvements in diet, as well as changes in attitude. As seen in public health strategies for treating obesity, partial attainment of a goal can often be effective. Along those same lines, menu changes that bring consumers closer to MyPyramid goals, if not all the way there, can still bring about positive lifestyle change.

“It's important for food and nutrition professionals to help consumers see that improving their diets does not need to be ‘all or nothing.’ Consumers will be more motivated when they feel that goals are realistic,” says Hornick.

Hornick recommends that food and nutrition professionals show consumers how to use the concept of menu modeling to progressively modify their diets. By stressing taking small steps toward improving diet, consumers may be more motivated to make achievable changes.