Fat is in fashion, sugar is chic again, and 'lite' beers are for wimps. Is the new spirit of self indulgence a recipe for disaster, or could it actually be good for us? Eleanor Bailey investigates
After Years of guilt, always picking diet cola and eschewing stodgy puddings in a healthy bid for respect from one's peers, there is evidence of a shift in thinking. Visit new restaurants and forward thinking households and you will find that the beer is getting thicker and "butter" means butter and not some insipid "health" substitute.

Heavier beers are back in style. Sales of the new, thicker nitro-ales like Caffreys, Beamish Red, Kilkenny and Boddingtons Gold are currently growing by 40 per cent a year. The current passion for anything Irish means that all is hale and filling. Even the ever more ubiquitous O'Neills bars are thriving in the belief that chunky is good. Customers are lapping up their creamy beers served with hearty full-fat Irish dishes.

Fat, too, has its champion. Richard Klein's new book, Eat Fat, aims to cure us of our fat phobia. His message is that our paranoia has made us eat more, not less, and that we should just enjoy it instead.

While all of this has a ring of pre-millennial decadence about it ("eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die"), in fact, there are those who believe that the new spirit of indulgence may not be bad for our health. It may even be good for us.

The new food attitude seems to be: listen to your body. Instead of treating food as a conspiracy of excess flab and long term health problems, it can and should be a pleasure. The new thinkers claim that if we eat natural products in a balanced, harmonious way and enjoy it, there is nothing to worry about. "If you are relaxed and eating whatever your body feels like, then the diet will level out," believes David Lancaster, editor of lads' food magazine Eat Soup. "If you go to regions of France, where they eat large amounts of goose fat, they don't suffer excess obesity or heart disease because they are in a balance."

So can we stop worrying and start tucking in? Should we forget about "light", "low sugar" and "virtually fat free" and follow our inclinations instead? According to Alison Black, senior scientific officer at the Medical Research Council's Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre, the consumer has been overloaded with conflicting advice and is better off sticking to a sensible balance - which includes indulgence. "You're not going to give yourself a heart attack by having a blow-out of over-indulging once in a while. The 'official tilted plate', the Health Education Authority tool which showed the proportions of the various foods we should eat, included a proportion of fats and sweets. Basic dietary advice remains that we should increase complex carbohydrates and fruit and veg, and cut down on fat. But all within a balance."

So after years of one report after another suggesting radical changes to the diet, Black agrees that a more relaxed attitude may be more sensible. "Sugar, for example, has had a very bad press, most of which is probably quite unjustified. What is wrong with sugar? It's a perfectly natural foodstuff."

"Butter is back," rejoiced Dr Feelgood, anonymous GP writer for Eat Soup, in the last issue. Recent research collated by the National Dairy Council (admittedly not without a vested interest) suggested that full-fat dairy products such as milk and cheese may offer more protection against cancer than their leaner counterparts. The health onslaught against butter has indeed eased off - particularly amid health fears about margarines' transfatty acids and the safety of an overload of polyunsaturates. Accordingly, while actual butter sales are not up, in 1996 it marginally increased its market share over the supposedly healthier rival margarine.

Some experts think that with so much conflicting health evidence, we are safest with what we know. "I suggest avoiding processed, packaged, tasteless chemicals fobbed off as food and stick to tried and tested natural products," continues Dr Feelgood. "Anyone who prefers margarine because it spreads straight from the fridge, please get a life." Dietician Julie Dean agrees. "Most of the fat and sugar in people's diets comes from eating too many processed foods, not from eating natural foods like butter."

It all sounds a little too good to be true. Can we really stay slim and healthy if we just get cool about food and stop worrying? "In general terms," says Laura Ellis at the British Nutrition Foundation, "if you're choosing lower sugar, lower fat products, you will obviously be reducing your calorific intake and may lose weight. But there is an enormous variety of diet and calorie reduced products and some are much better than others. It is always a difficult message to get across to people that there is no such thing as 'bad' food, only a bad diet, so to that extent you can eat sugar and cakes and high calorie foods as long as you have a balanced diet."