What Are Your Dieting Skills?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Public health professionals constantly urge us to lose weight and live healthier lives, but the thought of changing our lifestyles can be daunting. If we start by building on behaviors we’ve already used in the past, however, the “impossible” becomes quite possible.

When working toward any end, setting attainable goals is imperative. An important factor in determining which goals are achievable is recognizing the you actually have. This is critical because “health-related behavior changes must be integrated into one’s existing lifestyle and interests if they are to be sustained over time. And a review of strengths and skills might reveal some tie-ins for this purpose, helping to identify routes to change wherein a person can feel some competence,” says Richard M. Ryan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.

Such an approach fosters confidence for change; plus, using existing skills keeps you motivated because you already have an interest in the area and believe you can succeed. “Building self-efficacy is crucial,” says Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D., professor (emeritus) of leadership and motivation at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

Understanding and reviewing your skills is one component of goal setting, which is key in building a foundation toward long-term weight-control success, says Marian R. Stuart, Ph.D., clinical professor and director of behavioral science in the department of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey.

To achieve success, you need to ask yourself, “What are my diet and activity skills?” Here’s how to find out.

A skill is the ability to use your knowledge effectively and readily in performance, or a learned power that helps you do something competently. For instance, a skill can be a knack for athletics, math, building furniture, working with computers or listening to people. “To best utilize a skill, you must know why it is important, see it demonstrated by others, practice it yourself and receive feedback on your practice so you can improve,” says Steven Danish, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, preventive medicine and community health and director of the Life Skills Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Keep in mind that a skill doesn’t have to be used all the time. You may be good at something you don’t do very often. Also, remember that having information about something is not the same as being able to implement your knowledge — the latter is the skill. In other words, you may know that to drive a car you have to turn the key, press the gas and steer, but that doesn’t mean you can actually drive.

Looking back is a great way to determine your skills. Review your early years (grade school, high school, college and post-college). Then list four or five of your major accomplishments that would be most helpful for weight control. Were you strong in any sports? What were your best school subjects? What were your hobbies or extracurricular activities? “Skills are often transferable across settings. If, for example, you were good at managing your time when you were in school so that you could participate in a number of activities, that same skill may be transferred to managing your eating and making time for physical activity,” adds Danish.

Another way to learn about your skills is to look at your current interests. A person who likes birds, for example, might use that as a basis for walking more; a person with cooking skills might want to develop healthy and tasty menus to prepare at home. Where there is interest, there is persistence, says Ryan.

Ask yourself: What do you like doing on a regular basis? “Look at how you spend your discretionary time,” says Locke. Look at all the different things you do in your life: at home, with family or friends, at work, in the community, with your church or synagogue. Also, think about what gives you a feeling of accomplishment. These might be related to physical activity, cooking, journaling or organizing support groups, to name just a few.

Compile a list of all your skills and then see how they could be applied to weight loss.

Here are a few examples:

Cooking: I’m an excellent cook and could buy some low-calorie cookbooks or even take the low-calorie cooking class that’s offered at the local “Y.” It will be fun to try out new recipes, and my family loves to sample anything I make. This can help all of us eat healthier foods.

Tennis: I used to be a great tennis player; I really loved the sport and miss playing it. I could use the local high school courts, or I could join an indoor court with the discount they give to employees of my company. I used to play every day when I was in college — I bet I could play two or three times per week. I could even join a league. Let’s see…if I played just twice a week for an hour per session, I’d burn almost 1,000 extra calories each week. Not bad!

Journaling: I love to write, and journaling every day would be easy for me. I can keep track of everything I eat, all my exercise and my emotions. Then I could tally everything up and look for trends.

Organizing: I was able to get my entire church to work on a clothing drive, and I organized a sub-group of the PTA to hold weekly meetings with the principal of my son’s high school. I enjoy working with groups. Perhaps I could organize a weight support group. Having people to talk to on a regular basis about my weight-loss issues would be very helpful.

Be as specific as possible when preparing this list — don’t just state an end result but try to come up with the skill itself and how it will help you lose weight. For instance, you shouldn’t simply state that you cooked a great roast chicken; that only tells about a one-time event. It would be more helpful if you said, “I’m an excellent cook and make a great roast chicken, so that’s one really healthful meal I can make at least once a week for myself and my family.”


Ask others: What do other people tell you you’re good at? Ask family, friends, co-workers and others what they see as your skills. To avoid putting anyone on the spot, send an e-mail or a quick note rather than asking in person. You could also show them your list of skills and ask if they have other ideas you could add.

Go deep: Look for skills you can transfer. For instance, you might think your computer skills wouldn’t help you lose weight, but you could probably create a spreadsheet to track your calorie intake pretty easily. Some skills (such as public speaking) will be harder to connect to weight loss, but I’m sure it can be done.

Assess your achievements: Write down five recent achievements; then review the skills involved with attaining these successes. Now figure out which of those skills can be used to help with your weight-loss goals.

Keep at it: Once you’ve decided how you’re going to use your skills, write it down and put it where you can see it — on the refrigerator, your desk, even the dashboard of your car. There are always roadblocks to achieving difficult goals. “When you reach a roadblock, and we often do, be prepared to rebound from the temporary setback. Remember that even the best basketball player rarely makes half of the shots he takes. In fact, in most sports, succeeding [e.g. getting a hit, getting a first serve in] half the time is usually a good percentage,” adds Danish.

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