Bryson's America: Today's special: the dried bran and water diet

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I HAVE been thinking a lot about food lately. This is because I am not getting any. My wife, you see, recently put me on a diet after suggesting (a little unkindly, if you ask me) that I was beginning to look like something Richard Branson would try to get airborne.

It is an interesting diet of her own devising, which essentially allows me to eat anything I want so long as it contains no fat, cholesterol, sodium or calories, and isn't tasty.

In order to keep me from starving altogether, she went to the supermarket and bought everything that had "bran" in its title. I am not sure, but I believe I had bran cutlets for dinner last night. I am very depressed.

Obesity is a serious problem in America. (Well, serious for fat people anyway.) Half of all adult Americans are overweight and more than a third are defined as obese (ie, big enough to make you think twice before getting in a lift with them).

Now that hardly anyone smokes, it has taken over as the number one health fret in the country. About 300,000 Americans die every year from diseases related to obesity, and the nation spends $100bn treating illnesses arising from overeating - diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and so on. (I hadn't realized it, but being overweight can increase your chance of getting colon cancer - and this is a disease you really don't want to have - by as much as 50 per cent. (Ever since I read that, I keep imagining a proctologist examining me and saying: "Wow. Just how many cheeseburgers have you had in your life, Mr Bryson?') Being overweight also substantially reduces your chances of surviving surgery, not to mention getting a decent date.

Above all, it means that people who are theoretically dear to you will call you ``Mr Blimpy" and ask you what you think you are doing every time you open a cupboard door and, entirely by accident, remove a large bag of Cheez Doodles.

The wonder to me is how anyone can be thin in this country. We went to a restaurant the other night where they were promoting something called "Skillet Sensations'. Here (and every word of this is true) is the menu's description of the Chilli Cheese Tater Skillet:

"We start this incredible combination with crispy, crunchy waffle fries. On top of those we generously ladle spicy chilli, melted Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, and pile high with tomatoes, green onions, and sour cream.'

You see what I am up against? And this was one of the more modest offerings. The most depressing thing is that my wife and children can eat this stuff and not put on an ounce. When the waitress came, my wife said: "The children and I will have the De Luxe Supreme Goo Skillet Feast, with extra cheese and sour cream, and a side order of onion rings with hot fudge sauce and biscuit gravy.'

"And for Mr Blimpy here?''

"Just bring him some dried bran and a glass of water.''

When, the following morning over a breakfast of oat flakes and chaff, I expressed to my wife the opinion that this was, with all respect, the most stupid diet I had ever come across, she told me to find a better one, so I went to the library. There were at least 150 books on diet and nutrition - Dr Berger's Immune Power Diet, Straight Talk About Weight Control, The Rotation Diet - but they were all a little earnest and bran- obsessed for my tastes. Then I saw one that was precisely of the type I was looking for. By Dale M Atrens, PhD, it was called Don't Diet. Now here was a title I could work with.

Relaxing my customary aversion to consulting a book by anyone so immensely pratty as to put "PhD" after his name (I don't put PhD after my name on my books, after all - and not just because I don't have one), I took the book to that reading area that libraries put aside for people who are strange and have nowhere to go in the afternoons but none the less are not quite ready to be institutionalized, and devoted myself to an hour's reflective study.

The premise of the book, if I understood it correctly (and forgive me if I am a little sketchy on some details, but I was distracted by the man next to me, who was having a quiet chat with a person from the next dimension), is that the human body has been programmed by aeons of evolution to pack on adipose tissue for insulating warmth in periods of cold, padding for comfort, and energy reserves in times of crop failures.

The human body - mine in particular, evidently - is extremely good at doing this. Tree shrews can't do it at all. They must spend every waking moment eating. "This may be why tree shrews have produced so little great art or music," Atrens quips. Ha! Ha! Ha! Then again, it may be because the tree shrew eats leaves, whereas I eat Ben and Jerry's double chocolate fudge ice cream.

The other interesting thing Atrens points out is that fat is exceedingly stubborn. Even when you starve yourself half to death, the body shows the greatest reluctance to relinquish its fat reserves.

Consider that each pound of fat represents 5,000 calories - about what the average person eats in total in two days. That means that if you starved yourself for a week - ate nothing at all - you would lose no more than 31/2 pounds of fat, and, let's face it, still wouldn't look a picture in your swimming costume.

Having tortured yourself in this way for seven days, naturally you would slip into the pantry when no one was looking and eat everything in there but a bag of chickpeas, and gain back all the loss, plus - and here's the crux - a little something extra, because now your body knows that you have been trying to starve it and are not to be trusted, so it had better lay in a little extra wobble in case you get any more foolish notions. This is why dieting is so frustrating and hard. The more you try to get rid of your fat, the more ferociously your body holds on to it.

So 1 have come up with an ingenious alternative diet. I call it the Fool- Your-Body-20-Hour-a-Day Diet.

The idea is that for 20 hours in each 24 you ruthlessly starve yourself, but at four selected intervals during the day - for convenience we'll call them breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack - you feed your body something like a plate of sausage, chips and beans, or a large bowl of double chocolate fudge ice cream, so that it doesn't realize that you are starving it. Brilliant, eh?

I don't know why I didn't think of this years ago. I think it may be that all this bran has cleared my head. Or something.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson, published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99. Available from all major bookshops or by mail order on 01624 675137