If you’ve ever watched Ellie Krieger on TV’s Healthy Appetite or flipped through one of her popular cookbooks, you might think she has it all figured out. But she insists that’s not the case. “I have my demons, too!” she says, laughing. “I try not to drink too much coffee or too much wine.”
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Still, when she looks at the big picture of her lifelong health habits, Ellie says, she can definitely see a pattern: “I eat French fries occasionally but I mostly eat really well—I’m very consistent, and for me that has paid off.”
It’s that reasonable approach to eating that Ellie detailed in her first book, 2005’s Small Changes, Big Results, now available in an updated version. We talked to the registered dietitian about revisiting the book after 8 years, what she thinks of nutrition fads like coconut oil and Paleo—and the one recipe she refuses to lighten up.
Spry: Why have you made the concept of “small changes” the cornerstone of your approach to health?
Ellie Krieger: Sometimes the idea of changing can be paralyzing for people because it feels very overwhelming. So the idea is that by doing it incrementally, you feel like you can harness it. It’s amazing how powerful that can be. It’s very important not to think all or nothing, which is what a lot of diets do. But “all or nothing” keeps us on a diet roller coaster. So instead, think, “How can I make this better? What steps can I take to improve from where I was?” The secret is that once you make one change, it triggers other changes. So you may be consciously making one change a week, but you’re unconsciously probably making more.
Spry: In revising and updating Small Changes, Big Results, what was the biggest change you made to the text?
EK: What was interesting to me was that people were buying the book still, but I was reading it and noticed I told people to “grab their Walkman”! And in a lot of the recipes I had used Greek yogurt, but at that time—in 2005—you couldn’t buy it in the store, so I gave instructions for how to make your own. The reason why I revised it was really just to update it, because so much has changed in our world, in terms of what food is accessible to us, as well as technologically, with smartphones and apps. I also wanted to address issues that we’re looking at now that we may not have been then, like coconut oil and agave.
What I find even more compelling is that I re-researched everything, and with all of that, the basic nutrition plan didn’t change. I find that very encouraging when I talk about long-term. Because I think a lot of people think, “Oh, scientists are just going to change their minds tomorrow anyway!” But in fact, it’s held true—the basic parameters of eating more whole foods like vegetables and whole grains, eating less sweetener, eating leaner meats and fish and incorporating vegetable proteins, looking at the meal pattern you eat and trying to be consistent. The core of that has remained tried and true. So 10 years from now it’s probably still going to be true.
Spry: How do you recommend people approach nutrition fads like coconut oil and agave?
EK: It’s one thing to try something—why not? Taste it or work it into a recipe here and there. But don’t make any drastic changes in the pattern of your eating—switching all your oils from canola or olive to only coconut oil, for instance—until we have a very complete understanding of the science. And right now we don’t.
Spry: When you were revising the book, was there anything that you added—maybe something you cook a lot more with now than you did back then?
EK: Definitely quinoa. No one had really heard of it back then, and I’d say that’s a staple on my shelf now.
Spry: You’ve said you love to experiment in the kitchen. How can that help sustain a healthy eating plan?
EK: I think people get very stuck in a rut in terms of what they think is possible when they’re eating healthy. When they think, “We’re going to eat healthy for the New Year,” most people just end up eating a lot of plain salad with grilled chicken on top, and after a while it’s boring. People don’t realize the wealth of options that are beyond that. I have four cookbooks and each of them have upwards of 100 recipes, so I feel like there are so many things you can do.
Spry: That’s kind of the opposite of what seems to be the trend in diets lately, which is more narrow and restrictive—like Paleo. What do you think of those types of plans?
EK: Here’s the thing: People need some sort of plan, and very often people aren’t on any kind of plan. They’re just eating haphazardly and eating a lot of processed foods. A lot of these diets put people on a plan, so they’re paying attention to what they’re eating, and most likely they’re eating a lot more vegetables. So for the short term, they’ll probably lose weight and they may be eating better than they would otherwise. But here’s the clincher: How long can you live like that? That’s the big question I always ask. And if you can’t, then you need to figure out what’s next. Anyone can lose weight, really. But most people who are looking at the New Year, they’ve probably lost weight X times before and gained it back. So what I encourage people to do is to say, “How is this time going to be different?” And I think one way to make it different is to think of it as more of a long-term life change. To say that you can never eat a grain again is unnecessary and most likely unsustainable—and potentially unhealthy, depending on the rest of the balance. So why do that? If you start to think long-term instead of short-term, the equation changes. The whole premise of something like Paleo is sort of silly to me, because if we’re going to say we should be living like the caveman days, we should be living outside while we’re at it! You can’t give half the argument, you know what I’m saying?
Spry: Exactly! We’re so much more naturally sedentary now. Given that, what kind of advice can you give people about staying active?
EK: I’m a nutritionist, but I really see health as a three-legged stool. You really need to eat well, in a big-picture kind of way, you need to be active in your life, and you need to look at your other lifestyle factors like stress, your connections with other people, sleep and other factors. Activity is critical, and the benefits of being active in your life are overwhelming, in terms of it improving how you feel about yourself, how you feel about your body, reductions for risk of disease, how your brain functions—the list is ridiculously long. So my philosophy is, again, to do something that feels sustainable to you. It doesn’t have to be the thing that burns the most fat. Just something that you like to do, that you can weave into your life in a regular way and make a commitment to.
Spry: What are your stress-busters?
EK: Taking a walk outside. Sometimes I’ll literally step outside for 10 minutes if I’m freaking out at my desk, and just get some perspective! The activity hugely helps. That’s an example of how it all weaves together—if you’re exercising, that’s like killing two birds with one stone. The other thing is keeping perspective. I may have a deadline, but it’s not a life or death situation. It’s going to work out. One of the things I do is mindfulness or breathing exercises. Tap into your breathing and think about where you are for two minutes can make a difference in your life and stress level.
Spry: Do you have any recipes that you don’t even try to lighten up?
EK: My aunt’s butter cookies during the holidays—I’m not changing that recipe one iota! They’re basically butter, sugar and a teeny bit of flour. So I have a couple throughout the holiday season—but that’s a once-a-year thing.