We live, as a brief perusal of the Sunday supplements will inform you, in an age of the diet. Or, more precisely, in an age of diets. For if one thing is certain about our current love affair with the Atkins diet (which, according to a front-page Daily Mirror headline early this month, has now ensnared three million Brits), it is that by next year fashions will have changed and some other regime will have taken its place.
The odd thing about this is that you'd expect the appeal of diets to be more enduring. People, on the whole, are pretty serious about losing weight; and diets are above all practical. So if one diet really did work better than the rest, wouldn't the debate about which is best finally come to an end? I don't want to be accused of stating the obvious, but doesn't the fact that this hasn't happened suggest there is actually no such thing as the perfect diet and that diets' appeal is based on other things, such as the kudos and reassurance they offer those who go on them?
In many cases, I'm sure, the Atkins diet does result in impressive weight loss. But wasn't the same true of Slim-Fast, Rosemary Conley and the cabbage soup diet? The point, surely, is this: if people want to lose weight, then all they have to do is eat less - of everything in general (apart, maybe, from cucumber and lettuce) and fatty foods in particular. This may require a mite more self-discipline than many people are willing to avail themselves of, but it isn't that big a challenge - not, at least, if your relationship with food is healthy.
The sad truth is, many people's relationship with food isn't that healthy. And this is the problem. Going on a diet speaks of a kind of desperation, an inability to moderate one's intake of what should, after all, be a source of pleasure. One reason I dislike the idea of dieting so much is that the approach it entails - not just to eating, but to life in general - is essentially joyless. Pleasures are, by their nature, spontaneous. Diets place strict limits on how spontaneous one can be, and are therefore inimical to pleasure.
It may not come as a total shock that I have never tried the Atkins diet nor any of the other fashionable diets of recent years. But I am not, as it happens, a dietary virgin. Roughly six years ago, when I was in my second year at university, I came down with a mysterious, ME-type affliction. For two years or more, the stuffing was knocked out of me. I couldn't get up in the morning, I habitually fell asleep in the afternoon, and I could barely concentrate on EastEnders, let alone the 18th-century history books I was supposed to be reading.
In the end, after trying a range of therapies, including acupuncture and meditation, I alighted on a treatment that I earnestly believed would restore me to health: a macrobiotic diet. This is based on the ancient principles of yin and yang. For those not acquainted with Chinese philosophy, yin stands for expansion and coldness (and hence those foods which are cooling and watery, such as sugar, tropical fruits and milk) and yang stands for contraction and heat (and hence those foods which are pungent and warmth-inducing , such as salt, red meat and vinegar). The idea is to avoid foods at either extreme. In practice, this means mostly eating brown rice (or some other whole grain, such as millet or quinoa) three times a day, accompanied by the narrow range of vegetables that are permitted (carrots, onion, celery, and not much else). Various types of seaweed are allowed, as are miso, tofu and tamari (a kind of wheat-free soy sauce). But wheat (and hence bread and pasta), sugar and dairy products are all discouraged.
It is, in short, a recipe for a strange attenuation of the taste buds. After a few weeks on the diet, I started having bizarre fantasies about foods that previously I hadn't even particularly liked. But boy, did it help me lose weight! Within a few weeks of starting, I had shed pounds. (It was no help at all with the fatigue, by the way, but that's a different story.) So if you are really serious about losing weight, I would recommend following Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna and giving macrobiotics a try. Just don't expect to go on receiving many dinner party invitations.