Can girls pick up food anxiety and bad diet habits from their mothers? Debra Waterhouse, author of a new book on the subject, thinks so. She talks to Glenda Cooper
A woman finds a magic lantern and a genie appears granting her the one wish of her dreams. Without hesitation she says: "I wish for thin thighs." In the light of world hunger, the homeless, crime, pollution, and environmental decay, the genie is appalled ... Feeling a little guilty the woman says: "All right then - thin thighs for all women in the world." [From Like Mother Like Daughter, by Debra Waterhouse]

Debra Waterhouse's mother was a Holocaust survivor who had seen mass starvation: when she was a small girl in Poland during the war, she and her entire family were transported to a labour camp. As a result, unlike many women who became part of the slimming explosion of the Sixties and Seventies, she found dieting unthinkable. When Waterhouse was growing up in the US, the fridge was always well stocked and dinner plates overflowed.

Yet by the time she was 15, Waterhouse weighed 7 stone while standing at 5ft 6in. "[My mother's] mission was to keep us from becoming malnourished. Why then as a teenager did I undernourish myself and diet down to a figure resembling that of a labour camp victim? Why did I cause the same pain in myself that my mother tried so desperately to prevent?" she asks.

This paradox formed the impetus for her new book, Like Mother, Like Daughter, which looks at the convoluted relationship between mothers and daughters when it comes to food. The media obsession with thin women has played a large part in what Waterhouse, author of Why Women Need Chocolate and Outsmarting The Female Fat Cell, calls "disordered eating" behaviour. But, crucially for her, it is mothers who play the largest role in their daughters' relationship with food.

According to research, 88 per cent of all mothers have tried to lose weight by fasting, laxatives, diuretics, vomiting or excessive exercise. Of their adolescent daughters, 80 per cent have already embarked on a diet. Dieting, Waterhouse says, has become "the cornerstone of the mother- daughter bond".

"It's a recent phenomenon which has never been experienced before in history," she says. "I have described it as the fastest-spreading illness in the past 30 years. Girls are already picking up the messages in society by the age of eight or nine and are starting an eating regime and setting themselves up for a lifetime of weight struggle and potential eating disorders."

After just three generations the number of dieting adult women has jumped by 300 per cent and the number of dieting girls has risen by a staggering 1,300 per cent. Yet we are not getting any thinner: statistics quoted in the book also show that the average woman loses, over a lifetime, 100lb through dieting - only to regain 125lb.

Her message is simple: dieting makes fat cells larger and more efficient at storage and eating low-fat foods all too often leads to eating more. "With thousands of reduced fat and fat-free foods introduced over the last few years we are becoming lipo-hysteric." she writes. "Mothers and daughters are becoming fat-phobic females. One 13-year-old shared with me the fact that she does not eat bread any longer because she discovered that it contained one gram of fat per serving."

Women need to accept that a pear-shaped body is healthy, she says. During adolescence fat cells activate to enable a girl's body to mature and become capable of childbearing. If she diets during this process her fat cells overcompensate and, ironically, become larger and more active.

Fat is also the primary source of oestrogen production for post-menopausal women and the more oestrogen that is produced, the less severe the symptoms of menopause. The extra weight gained also helps to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and hip fractures.

Waterhouse's answer is that as long as you eat a variety of foods in moderation and balance your food intake, you can eat what you want. This may seem a simple enough aim, but it is still difficult for most women to achieve. Waterhouse, who describes herself as a "nutritionist who can't cook", says that after years of self-starvation and overeating, she went through a "declaration of food independence" 15 years ago. While trying to live on fruit, vegetables and grains, she still wanted pizza and crisps. "I was in a nutritional dilemma. If I ate them in public I would be labelled a `bad' nutritionist. If I did not eat them I knew I would be completely dissatisfied with my diet. My solution was to eat them when no one was looking."

Eventually she realised there were no such things as good foods or bad foods. She now lists her five favourite foods as cheese pizza, crisps, Swiss chard, mashed potatoes with gravy, and dark chocolate, and her least favourite as rice, celery, okra, anything with curry, and chocolate with nuts.

She hasn't dieted in 15 years, she says; she eats what she fancies and exercises three times a week. And she has become the best advertisement for her ideology. She sits in a Knightsbridge Hotel, a petite figure, impeccably dressed, with undeniably thin thighs - something that she says is genetic: "Look at a picture of your mother at your age so that you can have realistic expectations."

Now in her mid-thirties, Waterhouse has no daughters of her own but says she wants children. She wants mothers to take a radical look at themselves and pass on a positive message to their daughters. They must explain the need for women to carry extra fat on their thighs; that they should throw away their scales - "scales are for fish not women" - and tell them that real women don't diet.

She advocates, humorously, a Bill of Food Rights which includes freedom of food choices, the right to bear hips and thighs, the right to eat ice cream for dinner and the right not to have perfect eating habits.

Waterhouse also stresses that she is not blaming mothers for the epidemic of eating disorders. "The fact that we have not been able to achieve sensible eating in the past should not be seen as another stick to beat ourselves with," she argues. But only by taking action ourselves can we hope to stop the vicious cycle: "If anything, I want to remove the blame from mothers ... The strength and love of a mother is what it takes to end this epidemic. We are 52 per cent of the population. We can make a difference. It's time we were a little more vocal."

And what of the relationship between Waterhouse and her own mother? "Writing [the book] made me feel closer to her. It helped me understand that she wanted to provide the best for us emotionally and financially, and food became very much a part of that. She found it very painful and she couldn't understand it when she saw me starving myself. I think it shows how intricate and complicated the mother/daughter relationship is"

`Like Mother Like Daughter: Breaking Free From the Female Food Trap', by Debra Waterhouse (Pandora Hardback, pounds 12.99).