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Feature Articles: Eating Well

“Skill-power” can lead to healthier habits

Lynda Johnson, R.D., regional nutrition and health education specialist, University of Missouri Extension


When it comes to making lifestyle changes to improve health, focus on skill-power rather than willpower. Many people start down the road to better health with good intentions of eating healthier and moving more. Within a matter of weeks, good intentions fall by the wayside.

Woman refusing large burger

It is easier to be successful at lifestyle changes when you set small, attainable goals and learn new skills that will help you succeed at adopting new health habits permanently.

People often believe they fail at losing weight or exercising more because they don’t have enough willpower to succeed. However, for permanent lifestyle changes, it is important to learn skills that will help you overcome obstacles that block your way to better health. Learning to set smaller, doable goals rather than relying on willpower leads to improved health habits.

For example, you may eat at fast-food establishments. Setting a goal to choose healthier foods when eating out is attainable; however, you also need the skill of knowing how to make healthier choices. Most fast foods are loaded with fat, sodium and sugar. Skill-power includes setting a goal to choose wisely, eat fast food less often, and learn how to make healthier fast-food choices. Here are some tips:

  1. Say no thanks to combo meals.
    Buying a combo or “value” meal may seem like a real deal, but it’s often a nutrition disaster. Just say no when offered a combo meal.
  2. Swap super-size meals for smart-size.
    A regular burger, fries and drink at Burger King contains 700 calories, 24 fat grams and about 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s a serious savings over a Whopper with king-size fries and drink, which contains 1,730 calories, 46 fat grams and 27 teaspoons of sugar. The 700-calorie meal is close to a third of the total calories many adults may need for a day, whereas the 1,730-calorie meal is closer to the total fat recommendation for the day.
  3. Share a biggie-size meal with friends or family.
    There is a smart way to make gigantic portions work for you – share them. By splitting one large portion, you can save money while cutting calories and fat. At Wendy’s, Great Biggie fries have 250 fewer calories (530 calories) than two medium fries (780 calories).
  4. Save money and calories with kiddie meals.
    With kiddie meals, you get reasonable portions of your favorite fast foods and a fun toy, too. Still feel hungry after a McDonald’s Happy Meal? Order a yogurt parfait or, better yet, bring a piece of fresh fruit for the ride back to work or school.
  5. Substitute power drinks for soft drinks.
    A 44-ounce soft drink has about 450 calories and 3/4 cup of sugar with no nutritional value. Skip the liquid candy and enjoy the power of milk (with protein, calcium and vitamins) or orange juice (with vitamin C and folic acid) instead. Or save money and enjoy refreshing, calorie-free water.
  6. Switch to healthful options.
    Several national chains offer tasty, healthier options, like Subway’s low-fat sandwiches on whole grain breads. McDonald’s offers side salads & low-fat dressing that you can substitute for fries. Many have grilled chicken salads and sandwiches; however, be sure to order the low-fat salad dressings.

Use your skill-power to make healthier, lower-fat, lower-calorie meal choices when eating fast food. Reward yourself for achieving small goals like these to help maintain your motivation.


Sometime, you may find yourself ordering a large fast-food combo for lunch. Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., author of The LEARN Program for Weight Control, says that in situations like this, it is important not to let a lapse become a collapse of your goal to eat healthier. You can quickly recover by taking charge and eating a lighter dinner with lots of healthy, low-calorie vegetables. Skill-power will always be stronger than willpower in terms of adopting a healthier lifestyle.

For more on maintaining a healthy weight for life, contact your local University of Missouri Extension center, and request information on the A New You: Health for Every Body program.

Adapted in part with permission from Eat Right Montana.

Additional source:
Brownell, Kelly D. The LEARN Program for Weight Control. Dallas, Tex.: American Health Publishing Company, 2004.



Last update: Wednesday, December 05, 2012








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