Americans love to diet. Nearly 40 percent of women and 25 percent of men in America are on a weight-loss diet at any given time. Nationwide, we spend over 15 billion dollars annually on dieting-related products and services. And yet, we have the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes anywhere in the world. It is the sad truth that the vast majority of dieters eventually fail, despite their earnest efforts to control their weight.
Quick fixes are naturally more attractive than long term strategies. Diets 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 an only “temporary” break from one’s regular lifestyle. There is the implicit assumption that the diet will end as soon as the intended goals (i.e. weight loss, lower blood pressure, etc.) are accomplished. Dieting may be hard, but at least it’s not permanent. It is needless to say that this kind of attitude makes relapsing into old habits almost inevitable.
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 as quickly and as efficiently as possible, I think, it would be more beneficial to have a long-term strategy that goes beyond instantly gratifying results. 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, especially since it is rather a “lifestyle” than a “diet.”As the name suggests, Mediterranean-style cooking takes its cues from countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, such as Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece, parts of Turkey and also Northern 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 sparingly.
By contrast, our 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. Instead of setting time aside for sit-down meals, too many of us skip breakfast, work through lunch, snack all day and get dinner from a pizza parlor or fast-food joint.
Unlike in our culture, speed and efficiency are not at the core of Mediterranean cooking. Most meals are made from scratch using only fresh ingredients. People enjoy eating. Sharing food with family and friends is a central part of the social fabric and spending time eating together is highly valued. Eating while watching TV or working at the same time is almost unheard of and so is snacking between meals.
Experts have looked at these lifestyle differences between our cultures for a long time. Some have pointed out that unhealthy lifestyle habits also exist in the Mediterranean region, including high 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. But 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 lifestyle that makes a difference. We should re-learn to look at food as something more than fuel to keep us going or as comfort to get us over our frustration or boredom. Buying food and cooking dinner should not be considered as additional chores we have to squeeze in after a busy day, but rather as a time to relax and to connect with loved ones. Sitting down at the dinner table instead of mindless munching in front of the TV should enrich our day, not complicate it. 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 like these can go a long way and a lot of positive results may come along without too much extra effort.