Dieting is bad for us, says the newest wave of self-help gurus. Freedom at last for the food-obsessed? Or just another form of weight control?
january is harvest time for the diet industry and this week sets off the familiar cycle. Thousands of women will sign up to Weight Watchers when Christmas indulgence brings recriminations and misery. But while the majority still subscribe to the "be thin or spend every waking hour worrying about food" dilemma, a growing number are moving from the diet to the anti-diet. The belief that we need not look like Jodie Kidd to be content is gathering momentum. And where there's a belief there's always a marketing concept. Thus in the fertile field of anti-diet counsellors and support groups, new self-help books are springing up like mushrooms.

This month alone, the new publications include Dr Cherie Martin's Naturally Slim Without Dieting; You Count, Calories Don't, edited by Mary Evans Young; Thin Think by Jane Walmsley; and the paperback edition of Slim From Within by David Brooks. All these books aim to give women healthy eating habits and ditch the false promises of the old extreme diets which promised a radical reshape in a week. But they look suspiciously familiar. Cherie Martin's cover explains that she stopped dieting - but hastens to add that she still lost 70 pounds and that you too can "meet your new natural slim self". Slim From Within has a glamorously thin woman walking from the shadow of her old normal sized self. So is this recent move towards "natural slimness" and losing weight by eating normally really a step forward - or just a cynical effort by publishers to come up with something new in a saturated market?

Most of these books still offer eating plans and recipe ideas after all. Stop the Insanity! written last year by Susan Powter told us to give up dieting in the same breath as telling us how she lost several stone by cutting out fat and taking on a punishing exercise schedule.

They are presenting a mixed message, says Mary Evans Young, founder of diet breakers, the organisation behind International No Diet Day who is hard-line anti-diet and in favour of larger size acceptance. "Books like Cherie Martin's are saying some good things but it's still presented in a way that suggests that women need to lose weight in order to be happy. There is pressure to be commercial and You Count, Calories Don't is as close to the bone as I was prepared to go. If a writer offers you a change of life by losing weight, they are buying into the dieting myth even if they mean well."

The relationship between women and the diet book is almost as complicated as that between women and food. No one is completely innocent. It is not simply that women are victims exploited by the cynical diet and anti-diet publishers. For the public puts books that promise a size 10 in 30 days on the best-seller lists while books that say "be happy as a size 16" are more likely to languish in warehouses. Many women know the evidence that 96 per cent of diets don't work but they still dream that the next diet book will be different. Publishers have to respond to this. Even Susie Orbach's seminal Fat is a Feminist Issue was subtitled. "How to lose weight permanently without dieting."

Rowena Webb, Mary Evans Young's editor at Hodder and Stoughton, explains that the media, and women themselves, unwittingly conspire to make it very hard to publish a book that doesn't promise weight loss. "While we definitely want to be responsible in the books we publish, we also have to be commercial. Newspapers wouldn't serialise a book like Mary Evans Young's Diet Breakers because it didn't offer a glib and ultimately unrealistic weightloss goal. So it didn't get the exposure that other less 'sound' books would. But it's not just the media. It's a chicken and egg thing. The public is equally eager for complete guidelines for the ultimate solution to their problems, a book that lays out instructions beginning 'Start at day one ...' "

Another problem is that many of the publishers of the new anti-diet books are themselves women with food obsessions, who are also looking for the two-week solution. One writer describes a lunch meeting with a prospective slim publisher who "picked at lettuce over lunch and described herself as disgustingly lumpy. She kept trying to find out if my book could help her. Another editor was already joined up to Overeaters Anonymous."

The UK's anti-diet industry was founded virtually single-handedly by Mary Evans Young in 1992 when she set up Diet Breakers. This organisation helps women (and some men) talk through their weight problems and diet obsessions with trained counsellors and develop a healthy relationship with food, rediscovering such long forgotten sensations as hunger and angst- free restaurant trips. Many on the course do in fact lose weight, because once the obsession is under control - most people are never totally free from addiction - they settle at a "natural" weight, which may be size 10 or may be size 16.

Thirty-three year old Julia's obsession with her weight is only slightly older than her reliance on self-help books. She has benefited enormously from the Diet Breakers' course, but acknowledges that part of its appeal is a similarity with traditional pro-diet courses. "There is a parallel to be drawn between what we're doing at Diet Breakers - meeting with other 'sufferers' - and what goes on at a slimming class. I feel inspired to eat well during the week until I meet the group again. We gain strength from the course and each other. The difference was that I was not forced onto a pair of scales and told off if I had 'failed'. Diet Breakers acknowledges that it is not a simple matter of success or failure, that you have the rest of your life to recover."

Julia sent off for Mary Evans Young's first book last summer after reading a newspaper article. She was a veteran of self-help books. "I read Fat is a Feminist Issue when I was 26 and after years of 'proper' diet books it had a very profound effect on me. I realised that there were other things that you could do with your life rather than diet. Diet Breakers is much more practical. It teaches how to eat sensibly, how to find the weight that's right for you. I'm much better than I was. I'm able to stop eating when I am full now. I'm not bingeing. But it's still not easy."

Julia is still very focused on food. She has given up diets, but she still re-reads Fat is a Feminist Issue "a lot" as consolation. Janice Bhend, founder of Yes!, the magazine for women of size 16 and over, explains that once you have the dieting bug it is hard to lose. "Dieting is very addictive and even women who want to get better by learning why they don't need to diet will still be more attracted by something in a weak moment if they thought they might lose weight. Women are still less likely to buy clothes modelled by a larger woman. They don't want to be associated with the ostracised larger section of society even if it includes themselves."

Shelley Bovey, feminist author of The Forbidden Body - subtitled "Being Fat is Not a Sin" - believes that all the so-called anti-dieting books are guilty to a greater or lesser extent. "Even You Don't Have to Diet by Tom Sanders makes me very angry. Here is an authoritative medical voice saying in one breath that yo-yo dieters are twice as likely to die as 'overweight' normal eaters and then in another telling us that, of course, you should still go on a diet if you are overweight - information like that puts the fear of God into women who cannot lose weight no matter what."

Compromise, it seems, is the only way to get bums on seats and off diets. Karen, 45, who attended Cherie Martin's "Weigh Ahead" classes, which complement her new book, only went along in the hope that she might lose weight. "I almost didn't go back after the first time, because I didn't want to learn to accept myself as I was. I hated myself. I wanted to be thin. I was in total denial. I heard what Cherie was saying, but I was thinking: 'This isn't true. The right diet will work'. I always assumed that there was something wrong with me. I went on my first diet aged 10, back in the 1960s when you had to look like Twiggy. I have felt ashamed most of my life. I tried everything. The Cambridge diet was horrific. I stopped eating for a week which messed up my metabolism. I ate just grapefruit and hard-boiled eggs. I was too embarrassed to exercise. My house was littered with diet books. It was an obsession for over 20 years."

Karen stuck the course which, like Diet Breakers, was a combination of information, shared experiences and reassessing beliefs. Her group remain in touch and meet for mutual support. "It's a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We back each other up. We can have a good cry. One of us might have found another supportive book." It keeps them on the straight and no need to be narrow.

The crux then is that often, unless they dangle the carrot of weight loss, well-intentioned anti-diet campaigners and writers will miss out a lot of women who desperately need them. Once such women are targeted they can be helped to healthier attitudes.

Cherie Martin's clients learn facts about food and diet. They discover what caused the compulsive eating in the first place - Martin is a firm believer in emotional deprivation stemming from childhood being the cause of reliance on food for emotional solace in adult life. They keep charts of their hunger patterns and eating needs. They deconstruct their intake and start again. In short, the entire weekend is devoted to talking about food. Is the anti-dieting effort thus guilty of perpetuating the all-absorbing and unhealthy food obsession? Wouldn't women be better off if they could simply stop thinking about food so much? Cherie Martin says: "Compulsive eaters are addicts and they need to learn to have positive attitudes before they can develop normal indifferent attitudes. The depth that we go into would be very boring for a normal eater, but when food is your prop, it's different."

Things have improved in that there is at least an acknowledgement that punishing weight loss is a bad thing and that maybe there's an alternative even if women still cling to the pernicious diet regimes. Progress has been made. According to Shelley Bovey's book, in the 1920s ten per cent of dieting women were relying on an implanted tapeworm.