A girlfriend of mine who used to edit a slimmers' magazine was scratching her head and wondering what to put on the cover of her launch issue when she had a brainwave. "What do you most miss when you're starting a diet?" she asked her staff. Five hands went up immediately and they all said the same thing: chocolate. So she found a chocolate bar that claimed to have the fewest calories in any chocolate bar ever to have been made, stuck it on the front of the magazine and sat back and watched them galloping off the shelves.
It was laughable, but 20-odd years later, they're still doing it. A diet in Rosemary Conley's magazine Diet & Fitness this week is billed as The Chocolate Lovers' Diet. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's not rocket science. You juggle the numbers or the calories or whatever and low and behold, there's room for a treat-sized chocolate bar at the end of the day. I'm not saying it's a con, not at all. It's just a case of dressing up an old idea with a few different recipes. Give a would-be dieter a little of what they fancy and it doesn't half help.
I've had direct experience of it recently when I tried the Right Bite diet menu devised by the nutritionist Nathalie Haddad and had my meals for the day delivered to my door. Every day, there were a couple of little treats included, like the most delicious chocolate flavoured brownies. There were three of them and I ate them very slowly and loved every last crunchy, chewy, chocolatey minute. Haddad says quite simply that if people feel deprived of something, they get bored too easily and just give up. What a couple of weeks using the Right Bite service did for me was to re-educate both my taste buds and my eyes at the same time. Yes, I could enjoy chocolate, but I now know what a normal portion should look like and how much I can get away with eating without putting on weight.
I've now invented a few little "treat strategies" of my own. Sometimes, I'll buy a bar of milk chocolate, keep it in the fridge till it's hard and then chop the squares in half. In the old days I would probably have scoffed the lot before I had even opened the fridge door. Now I try to savour the treat. I remember when I gave up smoking more than 30 years ago. Although I quit overnight and chucked half a packet of Benson & Hedges in the bin, I always thought to myself that if I got desperate, I would have one cigarette. I know lots of people can't do that, but I found that I could, and the feeling that it was there if I really needed it made it easier to delay the evil moment. For cravings, think sliced-up chocolate in the fridge.
Eventually, it became such an effort to go out and buy a packet that I would put it off till the next day and the one after that. After a while I realised I hadn't thought about a cigarette all day. Even now, all those years later, I still occasionally feel like one, especially if I'm at a party and having a good time. The moment passes and I'm hoping that it will be same with chocolate. Looking back, the smoking thing was all about self image, too. There was a television advertisement urging people to give it up and the girl in the ad looked a bit like me. Two blokes were talking about her and one said to the other, "It's like kissing an old ashtray." That did it for me. I was young and single at the time and when I married, my husband hated cigarettes with a passion, so it was easy to stick to it.
There's a strong connection between dieting and smoking, of course, and all the skinny models I've ever met have been chain smokers. Look at Kate Moss. She smokes non-stop. Models do it because it suppresses their appetite. The trouble is that, in the end, it makes their skin look dreadful, not to mention the disgusting cough. They tell themselves and others that it's just the central heating or the air conditioning or the dust, but you and they both know it's the fags. And just like losing weight, giving up smoking is all in the mind. You have to want to do it.
I truly believe you can think yourself thin. I don't mean that you can do it without cutting down on your calorie intake and exercising more. It's more of a mindset thing. If you want to be thinner, you need to get into a state of mind where that becomes the priority. You also have to sustain that feeling for several months. So you can laugh all you like at the sliced up bits of chocolate in the fridge. I'm not saying it works. I'm just saying it works for me at the moment.