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Small Changes, Big Results with Ellie Krieger, MS, RD

Ellie Krieger, registered dietitian, former model and current host of “Healthy Appetite” on the Cooking Channel, swears by the idea that healthy food can taste great–it’s all in what you choose and how you cook it.

Krieger arrived on America’s culinary scene in 2005 with the publication of Small Changes, Big Results: A 12-Week Action Plan to a Better Life (Clarkson Potter), a combination dietary primer and fitness guide that advised readers to make small shifts in their lifestyles that focus on becoming more physically active and eating nutritious whole foods in proper proportions. As a bonus, she showed how to make healthy meals so delicious that people actually want to eat them.

This month, Small Changes, Big Results was re-released to reflect the changing shape of American society. Eight years ago, Greek yogurt was almost impossible to find in stores, for instance. iPhones were two years in the future. The revision of Small Changes, Big Results includes dozens of new recipes and updated advice on, among other things, integrating smartphones into our dietary strategies without having them take over our lives.

“As I rewrote and considered all of these things, it was like looking into a time capsule,” Krieger says. “But as much as some things changed, what really astounds me is that the basic plan didn’t change at all. And I think that’s a huge comfort–that the very core of eating well and being an active person and living a good, healthy life has a stable base that’s not going to change or turn on a dime.”

Krieger talked with Sandy Todd Webster, editor in chief of IDEA Fitness Journal, at the Academy of Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo last October in Philadelphia. The following is an edited version of the interview.

Ellie’s Tips about Chips

Sandy Todd Webster (STW): From a registered dietitian’s perspective, describe how you believe we’ve progressed, or regressed, in professional efforts to turn the tide on obesity. And what do you feel we need to do to keep moving forward? How can fitness pros and RDs get involved?

Ellie Krieger (Krieger): I think it’s the most exciting time I can remember in the field of food and nutrition. We have this convergence of momentum from the top as First Lady Michelle Obama has made this call to action from the highest possible level of leadership, and then we have this incredible grass-roots action. People care more than ever now where their food comes from. Our opportunity as professionals has never been more ripe.

STW: Both of our professions are at the front lines of impacting clients’ lives. How do you think fitness and nutrition pros can partner to have more of an impact on clients’ goals in creating better health for themselves or in their communities, or for their families?

Kreiger: There’s a lot of overlap in our skills, and so I think sometimes we don’t work together as well as we could or we should.

STW: How do you think we can surmount that?

Kreiger: I think we literally should put our efforts together. When I was in private practice, I worked at a wellness facility where clients met with a team of people–a trainer, a dietitian, a physician and a psychologist for motivational stuff. We had this amazing team approach and I really think that is such an incredible model.

I really take this whole-body, whole-self approach. You can’t just look at one element of it. In the new revised edition of Small Changes, Big Results, one of the basic foundations comes from my experience working in this team approach and seeing how wellness is this three-legged stool. One leg is how you eat, one leg is how active you are, and the other one is wellness issues such as getting enough sleep, managing stress, fostering relationships and managing technology in your life. So as professionals, I think we need to recognize where we overlap and work together to create a complete circle for a whole person.

Recipe: Quinoa Pilaf With Almonds & Apricots

STW: What are specific ways fitness pros can impact client nutrition and still stay within scope of practice? For example, with apparently healthy clients, do you think fitness pros can talk about portioning or substitutions? Can they share recipes, do pantry cleanouts or lead grocery store tours?

Kreiger: The line is going to be different for different people because it depends on their education and experience. My instinct is you know when you’re a little bit uncomfortable. I think that there’s part of you as a professional that knows when you’re feeling, “I kind of don’t know what I’m talking about here.” And I think when you feel that, that’s the appropriate time.

STW: So when in doubt refer out and also just get as much education as you can.

Kreiger:: And try to learn as much about your client as you can. You know, really take that history.

At the gym, it drives me crazy when I hear trainers say things like, “Just eat three chicken breasts for lunch, you need the protein.” The big thing I would love to communicate is not taking a reductionist approach to food where it’s all about grams of protein, and grams of saturated fat, and milligrams of things and powders. The healthiest thing is whole food in balance.

STW: So shifting gears a little bit. It’s very interesting to me that we have such a robust national conversation going on about food, but it still seems largely to be a spectator sport. I’m speaking mainly about cooking shows. How do you think we can get more people inspired to actually get into the kitchen and start cooking and learning the skills they need to teach their kids how to cook and to teach their kids about food? I think that the skill set is kind of what’s missing in the kitchen.

Kreiger: I completely agree and I think even the cooking shows are more about contests and extreme cakes and extreme eating. The shows that are in the kitchen teaching you more about skills are becoming fewer and fewer, actually.

But I think a lot more people are identifying themselves as foodies than ever before. And foodies tend to be more likely to cook and more likely to buy fresh produce. So, I think in some ways this whole burst of interest on TV has created this sensibility of foodies.

STW: It seems like most of the interest is coming from younger people.

Kreiger: Which is fabulous! But I think people really need to know they can make delicious food that’s good for them, on a busy week night, and that it’s not that complicated. In order to learn the recipes, they have to learn basic skills. They have to learn how to grill a piece of fish so that it doesn’t taste dry. To me, all fish needs is salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste delicious. If you get a nice piece of fish. You don’t really need to know that much. Then you can maybe take it one step further and chop up some parsley. I mean it’s quite simple. You get great ingredients. Food is delicious simply prepared, if it’s well prepared.

STW: I’m just curious about why you decided to do a new edit of Small Changes, Big Results. What did you tweak in the book?

Kreiger: I really love the story of why I decided to do the revision. People were buying the book and were really responding to it. I was getting great feedback of people doing very well with the plan. It was published in 2005, which wasn’t really that long ago but in the foreword to the new book, two things sum up why I rewrote it: Greek yogurt and iPods.

Because in 2005, you couldn’t get Greek yogurt in a regular store. My recipes that called for thickened yogurt told you how to strain yogurt. And then I would say, “research shows you work out harder if you work out with music, so grab your Walkman.” So now, culturally the world has really changed and we have a lot of different options. We have a whole different technological reality with apps and smartphones and iPods.

So I added all of that into the book. I doubled the recipes basically, so it’s more of a cookbook now. But I put in information about agave and stevia. I changed the recipes so I didn’t make you strain your own yogurt. Greek yogurt in a bowl, mix with this, okay done.

Also I looked at issues like gluten-free. And then I looked at all the science, and it was really interesting to me that sugars were worse for us than we thought in 2005; it was like opening a time capsule. Isn’t it amazing? So sugar is worse for us. We didn’t really understand its effect on our heart health.

What else was different? Oh, coffee is better for us that we thought. It was sort of still like it might be connected to disease, now it’s connected to all these health benefits. It’s pretty amazing.

But other than that, what really astounds me is that the basic plan didn’t change at all. The very core of eating well, being an active person and living a good, healthy life has a stable base. That’s not going to change.

STW: Right, some of the information surrounding it might change, but the core of it is what it is.

Kreiger: I reevaluate every single step of the plan carefully: Eat more whole grains, eat more fruits and vegetables, reduce saturated fat and take trans fat out of your life, eat less sugary foods, avoid additives and instead amp up flavor with these ingredients. All these basic things that you can do day to day, that are totally doable. Chances are, in 10 years from now that’s still going to be the right thing to do.

STW: Do you have a closing thought or a message you want to impart to fitness professionals?

Kreiger: I keep coming back to not looking at nutrition as a set of numbers. Look at it as real food and a lifestyle. Because you can have a food that has this beautiful profile with the right amount of everything in it, but if it’s still a crappy food, it’s not even a food in my book. It could be some fortified, processed thing.

Every scientific study done on health and food favors whole food. So for example, antioxidants: They start plucking antioxidants out of the food and suddenly they have some negative effects. The results have not been as well substantiated with isolated nutrients. We don’t know everything about food. We’re discovering new things all the time, so the only way to get everything is to eat real food.

Photography: Lisa Houlgrave.


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Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster is the editor in chief of IDEA’s award-winning publications. She is Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified and is a Rouxbe Certified Plant-Based Professional cook.

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