Why You Need Skillpower, Not Willpower, to Lose Weight

We all know that to lose weight we need to eat healthfully and exercise. So why do so many of us hit dieting dead ends? What are we doing wrong? Dr. David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., a doctor of preventive medicine at Yale University, public health guru and EatingWell advisor, has the answer.

"It takes skill to turn what you know into what you can do," he says. "The problem is that we rely too much on willpower. Think of a really hard thing, like going up Mt. Everest," Katz explains. "We may want it really badly, but we will fail if we have no mountaineering skills." It’s the same when trying to lose weight. "People blame themselves, but they’re using only willpower," he says. In a world that works largely against us—Katz points to advertisers telling us that psychedelic marshmallows are part of a healthy breakfast—the pervasive reliance on willpower often results in failure. Instead, we need "skill power" to succeed.

In his new book, Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well (Penguin, 2013), Katz provides a toolbox of "skill power" to get you on the right track to a healthy life. Here are five tips to get you started.

—Gretel H. Schueller

Watch: See what to eat for dinner to lose weight


Skill: Adopt the Right Mindset Before You Eat

Skill: Adopt the Right Mindset Before You Eat

It really is all in your head: if you expect a certain meal to fill you up and satisfy you, it’s more likely to do so—even if what you eat is low calorie. The opposite is also true: if you expect to be left hungry or unsatisfied, there’s more of a chance that will happen.

Your attitude even affects your hunger hormones—specifically ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger. In a study at Yale University, researchers had each of 46 participants drink an identical 380-calorie milkshake on two separate occasions. During one test, they were told that they were enjoying an "indulgent" 680-calorie shake. The other time they were told that it was a "sensible" shake with 140 calories. The researchers measured levels of ghrelin during several points of the experiment. Ghrelin levels dropped more steeply among those who drank what they thought were "indulgent" shakes. Those participants also reported feeling more full.

Action: Before each meal or snack, pause, look at your food and tell yourself this meal will indulge your taste buds and keep you satisfied.

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Skill: Limit Variety

Skill: Limit Variety

Having a variety of foods can keep your diet interesting, but having too many choices available during mealtime can actually stimulate your appetite and cause you to overeat.

A phenomenon called "sensory-specific satiety"—it’s a mouthful, but it explains why you still manage to find space for dessert, even after a big meal. It’s because our bodies have a tendency to get full and lose interest in food that tastes similar. But when flavors and textures change, we keep eating. In particular, we often have room for sweets because that’s the flavor we are able to eat the most of before reaching our maximum fullness.

Action: Limit your taste options in a meal to just a few so you’re less likely to overeat. Include variety over time, not all at one meal.

Watch: How to Eat to Lose Weight


Skill: Practice Conscious Eating

Skill: Practice Conscious Eating

Look for patterns of mindless eating and end them. Do you grab candy from a coworker’s desk whenever you walk by? Finish the food on your child’s plate? Pay attention to unconscious actions that add daily calories.

If you often eat on autopilot, create new habits—like taking another route so you don’t walk by that candy dish or putting your child’s leftovers away immediately. If mindless snacking in front of the TV is your downfall, keep your hands busy with knitting or folding laundry. Pre-pack your snacks in single-serving portions so you’re not tempted to overindulge. Keep serving dishes off the table at meals so you have to get up—and think twice—if you want a second helping.

Action: Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Pause periodically. It helps to put your fork down between bites and pay attention to your body’s signals. Aim to finish eating when you feel about 80 percent full.


Skill: Rehab Your Sweet Tooth

Skill: Rehab Your Sweet Tooth

Have a sweet tooth you can’t control? Simply using willpower to avoid sweet treats isn’t enough. You’ll still crave them and, eventually, you’ll fall off the wagon.

Instead, focus on reducing your intake of "stealth sugar"—or sugar hidden in foods you might not suspect, like pasta sauce, bread, crackers and yogurt. Some can contain more sugar than an ice-cream topping, says Katz. We may be accustomed to products with stealth sugar, but taste buds are malleable—so the less sugar you eat, the less sugar your taste buds require. Eventually the dessert you used to crave will taste too sweet.

Action: Read food labels to find and reduce the stealth sugar hiding in your pasta sauce, bread and other packaged foods. Compare brands to find the product with the least sugar (look at "total sugars" on the Nutrition Facts Panel). And check the ingredient list for sugar: you want a product that has no sugar (aka sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, etc.) in the ingredient list, or one where any sugars are listed toward the bottom (that means there isn’t much sugar added).

Related: 3 Ways to Break Your Sugar Habit


Skill: 5. Multitask Your Muscles

Skill: Multitask Your Muscles

Cramming exercise between work and family obligations sometimes means it gets pushed aside—despite our best intentions. So why not multitask? For example, set up your work environment so you can work while standing—or sit on a stability ball instead of a chair. (Katz cites a Miami University study finding that people burned three times as many calories when they performed their tasks at a standing workstation.)

You can multitask muscles when you’re watching TV too. Hop on a stationary bike, treadmill or elliptical while watching TV, or make the most of commercial breaks by jumping rope or doing jumping jacks or pushups. The more options you have, the more empowered you are to find one that works for you, says Katz. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise daily, five days per week. That may seem like a lot, but mini-workouts spaced throughout the day add up quickly.

Action: Move whenever possible. Here are a few more ways to sneak movement into a busy day: walk your kids to the bus stop, park your car far away from entrances, skip escalators and elevators, walk the long way to the office printer. You get the idea!

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