SMART Goals for Healthy Eating and Weight Loss
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
When it comes to weight loss, setting realistic and attainable goals will be one of the most important aspects of your success. Goal setting allows you to feel a sense of ownership over your plan and work towards a visible goal. Achieving small goals also encourages you to keep making changes knowing that you have been successful with previous efforts.
Goals centered around weight loss and healthy eating are sometimes too broad, and tend to focus on a general goal instead of the specific steps you can take to achieve the goal. The following tips will help you create more realistic and effective goals, instead of focusing on “losing 30 pounds” or “exercising more.”
Use the mnemonic SMART to help you set goals. The letters in SMART represent specific characteristics that together make up an excellent goal. SMART stands for:
S – Specific
-Setting goals that address what, why, and how in detail provide a clear direction.
M – Measurable
-All goals should include a measurable outcome.
A – Attainable
-You can also think of attainability as autonomy. Achieving a goal is under the control of the person setting the goal instead of someone else.
R – Realistic
-Focus on goals that are realistic and consider your current circumstances.
T – Time bound
-Attach a time frame to goals to give yourself a specific direction.
Once you have the underlying principles of SMART goals in mind, you can assess your intentions to see if they include the SMART characteristics. For example, if you want to increase your physical activity, you can set a goal to “walk with a friend at work for 15 minutes three times a week.” This goal is very specific, includes measurable outcomes, and is realistic and attainable for someone who has a busy schedule but wants to exercise more.
Other examples of SMART goals include:
If you want to eat more fruit: “I will eat one piece of fruit at breakfast three times this week.”
If you are just starting to eat more fruits and vegetables: “I will eat one fruit or vegetable from the green, orange, and red groups this week.”
It you are trying to eat out less often: “I will pack my lunch two times this week instead of eating out.”
If you are trying to choose healthier desserts: “I will eat dark chocolate and berries instead of cookies for dessert three days this week.”
Once you achieve your initial SMART goals, you do not have to entirely reinvent the wheel. Instead, you can build on your successes and tweak your goals accordingly. For example, if you succeeded at packing your lunch two times in a week, increase your goal to three or four times.
Getting Started with Goal Setting
Making changes to eat healthier and lose weight can be overwhelming and stressful. You may feel as though you want or need to make several changes, and you may struggle with narrowing down where to start. Luckily, there are many tools to help you identify the particular areas that you want to address.
To start, make a list of your daily habits and eating patterns, and identify areas that may be hindering your health goals. If you are interested in improving your health, you are probably aware of and can identify less healthy habits. If you are having a difficult time thinking about these, consider setting up an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. A dietitian can help you identify areas of improvement in your eating patterns.
Problematic areas on your list may include eating candy in the employee break room every afternoon or skipping breakfast. After writing down this list, use a clean page to draw circles and fill each one with a word that represents an area of improvement. The circles represent your options, or the areas that you can choose to focus on to begin eating healthier or increasing your exercise.
For example, your option tool may resemble this:
Once you have narrowed down some options, think about which one you want to focus on the most, as well as which option is the most realistic for you to focus on at the moment. For example, you may choose “sitting at work.”
Say your overall broad goal for this area is to walk around more and decrease the amount of time you sit at your desk. To make this more specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound, begin to think about how you can move more at work. If you have meetings on different floors, taking the stairs may be an option. If you send emails to coworkers across the room, you may decide to start walking to them to talk instead of emailing. You can even think about setting reminders on your phone or in your work calendar to get up and walk around every hour.
After you brainstorm how and for how long you will start to move at work, you can put your thoughts into the form of a SMART goal. An example SMART goal for this topic is: “I will take the stairs to at least one meeting a day on a different floor.”
It is also helpful to think about the why behind your goals when you begin to set them. For example, maybe you have high cholesterol levels and have received nutrition education about how eating more fiber can help reduce cholesterol. Your SMART goal to eat more fiber may be, “I will eat oatmeal for breakfast three days a week.” This is very realistic, and much more specific than “I want to lower my cholesterol levels.” Plus, knowing that this small step may help you reduce your cholesterol provides extra meaning and motivation for you to achieve your goal.
Finally, focus on the positive! SMART goals should not emphasize what you should avoid or limit. Instead, they should identify positive actions that you can take, as well as healthy foods you can add into your diet instead of those that you want to take away. For example, “I will avoid ice cream for dessert” is negative language, whereas “I will eat Greek Yogurt with fresh fruit and dark chocolate three days a week instead of ice cream” is a realistic and positive goal.
Taking Action and Tracking Goals
Once you set your SMART goals by brainstorming your areas of improvement and/or working with a Registered Dietitian, you are ready to take action! Analyzing your schedule, environment, and other aspects of your daily life are important parts of creating action plans. Identifying any possible obstacles to achieving your goal by planning ahead will make you much more successful at following through with your goals.
To make sure you have an action plan in place, think about all of the steps you will need to do to accomplish your SMART goal. If your goal is to eat oatmeal three times a week for breakfast, you will need to at least go to the store to get oatmeal. If you usually rush out to work in the morning and do not have time to make breakfast, you will need to decide if you want to wake up earlier to make oatmeal, or if you can prepare oatmeal in advance. Once you figure out your plan of action, all you need to do is take the planned steps to achieve your goal!
Lastly, you will need to decide on a way to track your progress. You may enjoy using a smart phone app to track food intake, so that you can log when you have oatmeal for breakfast or eat another food that was part of your goal. Writing down your goals and keeping a food and exercise journal are also helpful ways to track progress. If using an app or writing in a journal does not work for you, try writing out your goal once and putting it on your fridge, kitchen cabinet, desk, or another place where it will be visible.
Once you begin to make progress towards achieving your goals, you can build on your successes. Over time, you will be able to see how your SMART goals serve as small, attainable steps in the larger process of losing weight and improving overall health.
Sources: Bauer, K.D. and Liou, D. Nutrition Counseling and Education Skill Development (third edition). Cengage Learning. 2016; 19-24.
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