HOW MANY Americans will wake up tomorrow morning and put themselves on a diet?
Are we kidding? We might as well ask how many stars are in the sky.
The numbers are vast. There are 65 million dieters in this country at any one time, according to a 1989 Food and Drug Administration report.
There are probably even more in the month of January.
January is the time when people stare at a brand-new calendar while feeling especially fat after the annual holiday eating binge.
No wonder health and fitness clubs will do a booming business during the next 31 days; no wonder "lite" products will practically walk off the store shelves; no wonder the $1.5 billion weight-loss industry will attract close to one-fifth of its customers this month.
Just how successful are these customers?
Suffice it to say that the second-largest peak in the sales of weight-loss products occurs around Easter, when people start thinking about bathing suits. Food and nutrition guru Jane E. Brody not only thinks this is bad, she thinks it can be avoided.
"Dieting should not be just a resolution to be broken," the feisty best-selling author of "Jane Brody's Nutrition Book" said over the phone recently.
Ms. Brody, who also wrote "Jane Brody's Good Food Book" and this year's "Jane Brody's Good Food Gourmet," is an award-winning science and health writer for the New York Times.
"You have to keep the pressure off in order for dieting to be successful," she says. Counting calories won't work, because most of the time we really don't know exactly what's in the food we eat.
"What is this idea of eating by numbers, anyway?" she asks.
"You can paint by numbers, but you can't eat that way. You must eat by concept, not by calculator."
Ms. Brody's plan for weight loss is simple: Eat healthy food and the pounds just drop off painlessly without any feeling of deprivation.
"Plan one low-fat, high-fiber, low-sodium meal every other week until the end of 1991, and by the end of 1991, you'll be serving a whole new menu.
"You will also have a whole new you."
Jane Brody says she knows that her plan works -- she gets hundreds of letters from readers who "have lost weight without trying when they started to cook healthy meals for their husbands who had heart attacks."
She has had personal experience as well. "Twenty-five years ago I was overweight -- until I stopped dieting and got off the feast-and-famine routine," she says.
"I taught myself to eat three healthy meals every day whether or not I was hungry. I planned significant exercise. I had always been fairly active, but I made it a routine."
By doing this, Ms. Brody said, she lost 10 pounds the first month and more than 40 pounds in two years. She has kept the weight off with no effort, she adds.
"No maintenance was necessary. I had taught myself a different way of eating. And as I lost weight, I needed less food."
How do you go on the Brody plan?
"You start with breakfast; the idea is to eat it. Most people don't eat what I would call a breakfast. I'm not just talking about a piece of toast and coffee."
You have to have a reasonable amount of protein, complex carbohydrates and fruit as the first meal of the day, Ms. Brody explains. And yes, coffee is fine in moderation.
"In fact, the evidence is iffy that it is harmful at all," Ms. Brody says.
The second step: At supper, eat small amounts of food. "People stuff in food just before bed, when they don't need the energy. A pasta dish, a salad and a glass of wine is fine.
"You don't need a lot of protein at dinner. Protein is wake-up food. Between breakfast and lunch, you should consume at least two-thirds of the day's calories and most of your protein.
"Most Americans have it upside-down."
Lunch "depends on the situation." If you're a brown-bagger, take something like a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato, a fresh fruit cup and maybe a healthy cookie, Ms. Brody suggests. But a lot of workplaces have microwaves now, and you can bring in some dinner leftovers to reheat.
If you eat in a restaurant, Ms. Brody suggests you check it out carefully. "Look to see if they have menu items that are reasonably low in fat or if they will make things to order that are low in fat.
"Places that have a salad bar are fine if you choose your ingredients carefully. A lot of salad bars offer prepared food that is full of fat. Also, be careful not to drown your salad with dressing.
"Soup is usually a good idea, too.
"It is the structure of the diet, not the numbers involved, that counts."
Not everybody thinks this approach will work, certainly not the manufacturers of meal replacement products. This is a big business; it has been estimated that nearly 20 million people will use a meal replacement product in 1991.
New products are being introduced. Centrum DynaTrim by Lederle will turn up this year on the shelves to compete with Thompson Medical Co.'s wildly successful Ultra Slim-Fast.
The idea of this kind of diet is to consume the meal replacement twice or three times a day in addition to one well-balanced meal a day. This is said to to provide all necessary nutrients in a total of 1,200 and 1,400 calories.
"The USDA has determined that just about anyone can lose weight on 1,200 calories a day," says Dr. Thomas W. Ritchey, Lederle's associate director of medical development.
By following the DynaTrim program and getting 200 minutes of exercise a week, Ritchey says, a person can lose at least 1 1/2 pounds a week.
"Consumer studies have shown that people prefer such a product to educating themselves about nutrition," he says.
For maintenance, it is suggested that DynaTrim be used once or twice a day as a snack or to replace a meal.
Jane Brody isn't crazy about meal replacements.
"None of these 'miracle diets' have worked for the vast majority of people," she says. Especially not in the long run.
"And they won't work until we figure out the biological medical causes of obesity. They're not the same for anyone."
Ms. Brody says people are attracted to a "miracle diet" because they think it keeps them from temptation, but "if you're addicted to food, you just have to acknowledge your addiction," she insists.
"You have to figure out what are your trigger foods."
In her case, Ms. Brody says, the triggers are ice cream and frozen yogurt or anything else that's sweet and cold.
"I've learned that if they're in my freezer I'll just keep eating them until they're gone.
"I just make sure there is no ice cream in the house."