The man who saved smokers has turned his attention to the fat of the land. But is Allen Carr's new slimming message a diet book too many? Rose Shepherd investigates.
I'd like to tell you that since reading Allen Carr's Easyweigh To Lose Weight I've lost 20lb of unsightly fat. Much you'd care, but I'd like to tell you, all the same. However, his approach is gradual. There's none of that shed-seven-pounds-in-seven-days malarkey. Then, what with Christmas and everything, it's too early to say if the message will reach the parts that other slimming messages cannot reach.

The hope is that the man who has succeeded where others failed in talking smokers out of their tobacco habit, and ho has himself lost two stone, can talk perennial "slimmers" out of a futile dieting habit and into a new means of body maintenance. A simple appeal to reason, Carr seems to feel, is all that is required to persuade us to live off fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains; to eat fruit always on its own and on an empty stomach; to eschew meat, processed foods, caffeine, alcohol; to make spring water our tipple, while never combining starch and protein in one meal.

This is a very quirky book. For a start, the Easyweigh is not in itself a diet. There are no menu plans, no calorie charts, no recipes, just lots of Carr's own homespun wisdom, homilies, analogies, nature notes, apercus, a cheeky hint of hubris, and personal revelation.

Does this matter? Not at all, if what we are in want of is not information but inspiration. The point of Easyweigh is to change our minds, the way the minds of smokers may be changed. To appeal to common sense. To shift the focus. To float into the subconscious the idea of personal renaissance. Carr, a former accountant, is at base a salesman: he is trying to sell us a Big Idea, and it remains to be seen how effectively he's pitching this one.

We all know the theory of weight loss: less energy in, more energy out. We have been obsessively counting calories since before the First World War, when the Austrian physician Gustav Gaertner, author of Reducing Weight Comfortably, had his patients follow a novel regime low in calories, high in anxiety.

Then, were we able to lay our hands on a copy of the first slimming bestseller, Lulu Hunt Peters's Diet and Health, with Key to Calories, published in 1918, it would probably work as well for us as any of the thousands of books to have been published since - provided we could stick to a programme that began with a fast to show the body who was in charge, which at its most bounteous allowed the dieter just 1,200 calories a day, and which demanded lifelong observance.

And there is the rub. Because, two weeks into 1997, your New Year resolutions have probably gone the way of mine, the way of most resolutions - which is to say, out of the window.

Of course, there are people who can and do stick to diets religiously (quite literally, in some cases), but the rest of us will do anything to try to cheat the system.

From electrically charged obesity belts, through Elfin Fat Reducing Chewing Gum, Every Woman's Fat Reducer bath salts and La-mar reducing soap, to powdered meal replacements and ersatz fat with the attendant hazard of anal leakage, the bizarre and burgeoning slimming industry has for more than half a century been laughing all the way to the bank at the expense of the susceptible "dieter".

Then, if I had a pound for every laxative, emetic, diuretic, anorectic or amphetamine swallowed in the cause of weight loss, I shouldn't need to be writing this article.

Our resistance to those systems of prescription and proscription that we call diets, the lengths we will go to not to diet, must be as mystifying to anyone who's never tried to vary his or her weight as the smoker's habit is mystifying to nonsmokers. Here, then, is Allen Carr's great strength: he understands. He's been there, done that, bought the stretchy cardigan and outsize trousers.

Serial slimmers, like smokers, are not so much lacking in will as they are wilful. No one, after all, likes to be told what to do. This Carr has clearly apperceived. And if he truly has the measure of the slimmer's psyche, if he claims to have the "secret" of effortless weight control, it is worth giving his book the once-over.

He attributes his loss of what looks in photographs to have been a beer- drinker's belly (though he says not) to adherence in the first place to the F Plan Diet, and, later, when he wearied of filling his face with fibre - when he could not look at another bowl of muesli ("I can remember thinking, `God, what a lot of muck that is!'") - to the principles of Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond (Bantam), which he has espoused with a whole heart. Indeed, if you want to try the Easyweigh, you might invest in this book also.

Cunningly dissembling, Allen Carr asks us at the outset to believe that we need make no sacrifices to achieve our end. Far from suggesting that we stint ourselves, and thereby setting up resistance, he claims: "You can eat as much of your favourite foods as you want to, as often as you want to, and be the exact weight that you want to be, without having to diet or undergo special exercise or having to use willpower or gimmicks and without feeling miserable or deprived."

"Do you think that's putting it too strongly?" he asked me when I mentioned this extraordinary proposition.

Too strongly? No. I would say, rather, that it's totally untrue - or at least will hold good only when you so reform your appetite and eating habits that you crave only those foods that, by current consensus, are good for you. However, sooner than confront us with a single, daunting lifeplan, he suggests we make one minor change, and this at breakfast time - a thinkable, manageable adjustment for most people.

"Before I finished the book," he told me, "the only actual change I made was to start having fruit for breakfast. I did nothing else, and I lost a stone without any effort at all. At one time, I thought, `I want the old egg and bacon'. Now, when I look at bacon and eggs, I can't help seeing the dripping grease, and I think `I can't take this!'"

With stunning unoriginality, Carr compares the human body to the internal combustion engine. You wouldn't put treacle in a car, he argues, and expect it to run well. You wouldn't cut up a plastic bucket and stuff it in the tank, just because plastic is a derivative of petrol. Well, would you?

"Yet I was shoving mouthfuls and mouthfuls of filth and poison into my body without the slightest thought. It went in one end, and hopefully, eventually, it came out the other. But I was taking indigestion tablets every night. I had heartburn after every meal."

Now, the ills of constipation and dyspepsia are history. The Carr insides are April fresh. The man himself is euphoric. Last summer, sitting by the fish pond in the garden of his not immodest detached house in a London suburb, breakfasting on "scrumptious" fresh pineapple, he had a powerful intimation of wellbeing. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world - or it would be if humankind would just come to its senses. And he knew then, he just knew he'd got slimming sorted.

"It's about appreciating that your body isn't a waste disposal unit, and how to realise, if you have a big meal, that you're going to spend more energy digesting it and getting rid of the waste... it doesn't sound a pleasant subject, but you see I can't help seeing that now. So, when I eat fruit, I think, `Oh, how lovely for my body!' It's immediate energy.

"I'm 63, and I feel like a young boy again. I haven't eaten since breakfast. This morning, I had two slices of pineapple. I usually have one, but sometimes they're so lovely, I can't resist another. I had some grapes, and I had an orange. If I'm hungry, I'll have a banana. Then I won't eat again till seven o'clock at night."

What the idiosyncratic Carr is preaching is natural hygiene. He has come to the theory of it, apparently, through his own meditations on life, love and the universe, rather than through a conscious study of the subject. He had not even heard the term as he began to formulate Easyweigh.

It began when he saw a squirrel eating nuts, and noted that the animal, having had its fill of them, spent the afternoon burying the rest. "This was the first of the important pieces of evidence: the realisation that over 99.99 per cent of the creatures on this planet eat as much as they want of their favourite foods, as often as they want to, without being overweight... obviously there is an important lesson that we can learn from wild animals."

Later, Carr happened to mention his observation to a close friend, Ken Pimblett. He writes: "He said, `You've been reading about natural hygiene.' I confess that I'd never heard the expression and wondered what regular bathing, cleaning my teeth and changing my underwear had to do with the things I had been talking about. Ken explained that it was a long-established theory that had nothing to do with ablutions but rather was concerned with how far western society had strayed from natural eating habits. He went into great detail about the mechanics of our digestive and waste- disposal systems... I couldn't fail to be impressed by the fact that a man 10 years older than me looked 10 years younger and slim and trim with no excess weight."

Oddly, for Harvey Diamond, years earlier, there had been a similar epiphany. Here is Diamond, writing in Fit For Life: "Natural Hygiene - when I first heard the term, I thought, `Yeah, I know what that is, brushing my teeth and being sure to wash behind my ears.' Actually, Natural Hygiene is a most remarkable approach to the care and upkeep of the human body. The first time I heard the term, I was staring into the face of the healthiest person I had ever met... clear eyes, radiant skin, serene demeanour and well-proportioned body... He said, `You know, you're killing yourself and you don't have to be'. Well, I lit right up like a Christmas tree. One month after being introduced to Natural Hygiene, I had lost the 50lb that I had been wrestling with for so long."

Diamond went on to make natural hygiene his field of expertise. The bibliography with his book runs to more than 200 references. While tracing Natural Hygiene back to its roots in ancient Greece, and to Hippocrates's philosophy that "food shall be thy remedy", he records, "The modern history of Natural Hygiene in the United States began in 1830, when an organisation was formed called the American Physiological Society. Around 1850, four medical doctors, Sylvester Graham, William Alcott, Mary Gove and Isaac Jennings, began the first major modern Natural Hygiene movement."

The Natural Hygienists were like the telly evangelists of their day. The Reverend Sylvester Graham ("Dr Sawdust" to his detractors) was a lecturer on the Philadelphia Temperance Circuit, who preached against the evil of masturbation before turning his attention to gluttony. "Excessive alimentation," he declared "is the greatest dietetic error in the United States- and probably the whole civilised world."

William Alcott published excoriating attacks on the ritual blow-outs of Sunday lunch, Independence Day and Thanksgiving dinners. Mary Gove spoke out against gluttony, strait-lacing and self-pollution, she spoke for strict temperance to roll back the polluting tide of immorality. An estimable woman, the first female in the US to lecture publicly on female anatomy, she argued against a repressive society that denied women the exercise of their full power.

In his wonderful book, Never Satisfied: a Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat (Free Press), Hillel Schwartz summarises the Grahamite philosophy thus: "Gluttony, arch sin, was born of civilisation, which seduced the natural appetite and played digestion false. The spices and ferments of hectic commerce insinuated themselves into the kitchen of the innocent wife, wreaking havoc with her sacred duties as wife and mother. Fed too often because too often tempted, fed too ignorantly and therefore never satisfied, children grew weak, anxious and dyspeptic. The same children, appetites corrupted by the salt and pepper, the tea and coffee of an overly rich diet, became so accustomed to sensual excitements that self-pollution was the awful but common sequel. Habituated to public gluttony and, thus, to private lust, young husband and young wife would fall prey to the perils of sexual excess, which entailed most of the ills that flesh is heir to."

Fat is a political issue. If Graham could return to Earth in the age of BSE, of salmonella, of E-coli, of junk food and consumer excess, he'd no doubt permit himself a little Schadenfreude. And he would be sure to find a constituency among back-to-basics Tories, as he would among the Greens.

Allen Carr is not another Sylvester Graham. More arch solipsist than arch moralist he seems to me, although he does give credit in his book to God - or, if not God, then someone calling himself God, a Creator. He is Johnny-come-lately to the nutritional debate, and a stranger, apparently, to the hoo-hah about not-good-enough parenting, working mothers, infidelity, divorce and the break-down of the family, and the havoc wreaked by junk food, additives, refined sugars and booze.

He is a small, mild, amiable-seeming man, who has done an awful lot of good in curing smokers of their dependence. The Easyweigh could be a hit because it is timely. It is scarcely a work of Confuscian wisdom but, without even seeming to know why, it picks up very nicely on the Zeitgeist.

The effectiveness of Carr's observations may actually lie in their sheer banality. Isn't one's internal dialogue, after all, banal? Admonishing myself for being weak, or slothful, or out of control, I sound like nothing so much as a rather dim prefect trying to reason with a recalcitrant first- former.

He delivers some great selling lines in Easyweigh, some beguiling notions. For instance, that your weight problem is "solved" the moment you take your first tentative step towards change. As Carr put it to me: "Say you're short of money and you're terribly worried about it. Once I say to you, `I'll give you the money', provided you believe that I'm going to give it to you, you no longer have a problem."

There it is, then. Only believe that here is the answer to intractable overweight (or, for that matter, underweight), and the rest will follow naturally.

Or not.

Slimming gurus have appeared historically to divide between those who believed in the redemptive power of reducing diets, who were after our very souls, and those who would celebrate the sybaritic. On the one hand, we would become not just thinner but better human beings; on the other hand - from Raymond Postgate's Drinking Man's Diet to Michel Montignac's Dine Out and Lose weight - the message was that we might party and get thin. But the bottom line was ever the same: thin is better.

Since the late 1970s, Susie Orbach (Fat is a Feminist Issue), Kim Chernin (The Obsession, The Hungry Self) and Geneen Roth (When Food is Love), among others, have explored the complex relationships between food, sexuality and emotions.

In the 1980s, Geoffrey Cannon made much of the notion that, for reasons of pure physiology, dieting makes you fat.

Yet still thin was the ideal.

It is especially interesting, then, at this moment in dieting - or is is post-dieting? - history, that a new book, Eat Fat, a vindication of what we prejudicially call "overweight", is about to be published - especially since it is the work of Richard Klein, American author of Cigarettes are Sublime, who plays a kind of Antichrist to Carr's Messiah.

And the Devil, as ever, has the better tunes. Why, wonders Klein, when the Western world is so obsessed with dieting, are so many people overweight? Does our fat serve some purpose? And what is wrong with fat, anyway?

Like Carr, he proposes that we give up formula dieting, that we eat what we want, and without guilt. Who knows? Freed from the tyranny of calorie counting, we might even lose weight. And, if he's not the first person to suggest this, he is (surely?) the first to promise: "If you follow this book scrupulously, you will be exactly as fat as you want to be."

I'm not sure what he's up to, if he truly believes that fat could any minute be back in fashion, or if this is, after all, just another manual for slimmers, in heavy disguise. His audience is, after all, Allen Carr's audience. They are both after the slimmers, now, as they were after the smokers. They are the Box and Cox of self-help publishing. Be that as it may, Eat Fat is an entertaining and provoking read. Hillel Schwarz got there before Klein, with his scholarly Never Satisfied. But then, as we have seen, there is nothing new under the sun.

`Easyweigh to Lose Weight' by Allen Carr, is published by Penguin, pounds 5.99; `Eat Fat' by Richard Klein is published by Picador, pounds 15.99

Weighty words

"The Creator has provided all living creatures, including us, with a manufacturer's guide. Wild animals follow it! That's why they don't suffer the problems of being overweight."

"Do you ever hear of a tiger needing false teeth, a hearing aid and spectacles, or a toupee, or a pacemaker? Do wild animals need dialysis machines for their kidneys? Do they die from strokes, heart disease, cancer or diabetes? Isn't it obvious that these diseases are a direct result of what we eat?"

"Wouldn't it be nice if you knew for certain the exact weight you should be? You can! It's the weight you happen to be when, clad only in underwear, you can stare at your reflection in a full-length mirror and admire what you see. It's the weight you are when you wake up each morning completely rested, bursting with energy, looking forward to each day with genuine joie de vivre."

"The beauty of Easyweigh is that you aren't going on a diet, you are merely changing your eating habits. Once you have planted grass seed, you don't have to sit around waiting for the grass to grow."

"Most people who claim to be experts on the subject maintain that regular exercise is essential to a successful weight-control programme, but exercise is really just another red herring. You don't see snails and tortoises rushing about all over the place, but they aren't overweight."

"The termites' diet consists of wood. Not very appetising, you might think. Not for you or me, perhaps, but why else would termites eat it, if they didn't enjoy it? Having learned to digest wood, they have guaranteed themselves an everlasting supply of free and available meals."

"It's all very well for gorillas to roam around all day, picking a banana whenever they feel a little bit peckish, but most of us have to work during the day. This is no problem because the (Easyweigh) system is flexible."