05/17/2012 12:11 EDT | Updated 07/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Change Your Lifestyle, Not Just Your Diet

Sarah Shatz/Food52

When it comes to weight loss, quick fixes are naturally more attractive than long-term strategies. Diet plans that promise immediate results and don't require too much effort enjoy the highest popularity. The problem is that fast results are rarely sustainable over time.

The word "diet" itself suggests only a "temporary" break from one's regular lifestyle. There is the implicit assumption that the diet will end as soon as the intended goals (e.g. weight loss, lower blood pressure, etc.) are accomplished. Dieting may be hard, but at least it's nothing permanent. Needless to say that this kind of attitude makes relapsing into old habits almost inevitable.

You see, weight loss has a better chance to succeed when it is embedded in a health-conscious lifestyle.

Of course, dieting is not altogether to be dismissed as futile because of lousy success rates. If the goal is to lose a few pounds in a hurry for swimsuit season, almost any weight loss program will do the trick. However, instead of looking for a magic bullet that does the job quickly and efficiently, I think it would be more desirable to follow a strategy that can stand the test of time. In other words, instead of focusing on dieting for the single purpose of weight loss, I would rather favor a systematic development of (and permanent adherence to) an overall healthy lifestyle.

A diet plan I'm particularly fond of is called the Mediterranean diet, exactly because it is more of a "lifestyle" than a "diet." As the name suggests, Mediterranean-style cooking takes its cues from countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, such as the south of France, Spain, Italy, Greece, parts of Turkey and also North Africa.

Mediterranean food includes an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and legumes. Olive oil is the primary fat source. Meat consumption is minimal. So is poultry. Fish, on the other hand, is frequently served. Eggs and dairy products are used only sparingly.

By contrast, the western diet is typically heavy on animal foods, processed carbohydrates and sugar, but devoid of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Food items are too often chosen for convenience rather than for their nutritional value.

Speed and efficiency are not at the core of Mediterranean cooking. Most meals are made from scratch using only fresh ingredients. Both home cooking and dining out are favorite pastimes. Sharing food with family and friends is a central part of the social fabric, and spending time eating together is highly valued. Working through lunch or eating dinner while watching TV is almost unheard of, and so is snacking between meals.

Not so around here. Instead of setting time aside for sit-down meals, too many of us skip breakfast, eat on the run, work through lunch, snack all day and get dinner from a restaurant, take-out place or fast food joint.

Experts have looked at these cultural differences for a long time. Some have pointed out that unhealthy lifestyle habits also exist in the Mediterranean region, like excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. Yet the overall health status of the public seems better than ours, including the average life expectancy.

So, we have to ask ourselves what do they know that we don't? Or, more to the point, what do they do right that we do wrong? Obviously, there are no simple answers.

Besides the preference for fresh ingredients over processed foods and slow cooking styles over fast food and ready-to-eat meals, I think, it is the all-around healthier lifestyle that makes a difference.

For starters, we should learn to look at our food as something other than fuel to keep us going, or as comfort to help us over our frustration and boredom. Making a decent dinner should not be considered as yet another bothersome chore we have to squeeze in after a busy day at work, but rather as a time to relax and to connect with loved ones. Preparing tasty dishes while sipping a glass of wine and sitting down at the dinner table, instead of mindless munching in front of the TV, can enrich our day, not overburden it.

Likewise, food does not have to be the enemy that wreaks havoc on our waistline but can be a part of life that makes it good and worthwhile. Small changes in our attitude can go a long way and a lot of positive results may come along without too much extra effort.

My clients sometimes ask me what would be the single most beneficial thing they could do for their health and well-being (talk about efficiency...). My answers is invariably the same: Improve the quality of your life. Make time for yourself and those you love. Play more. Laugh a lot. Value little things, like a friendly smile or a kind word. Live consciously at all times. And yes, watch what you put in your mouth and walk, run, swim or bicycle off the extra calories. Get enough sleep and don't let the small stuff stress you out. Salute!