All over the Western world the strong–willed, the devout and the determined are deep in self–denial. They're giving up bread and pizza, chocolate or alcohol. And I don't just mean Passover strictures against unleavened bread, nor the treats foresworn for Lent. I'm talking about the millions in thrall to their food fads, from vegetarians to slimmers, allergy queens to ideologues.

One won't eat anything with a face; one reacts violently to onions; cheese and chocolate are bad for migraines; BSE made it tactless to offer red meat; salmon might kill you; did the chicken come from Thailand? We may have just about overcome our queasiness about South African fruit and Chilean wine but are you sure that coffee is really Fair Trade?

Fussiest of all are the slimmers and the health freaks. There are the fat–saturated Atkins crowd, the wheat intolerant, the gluten–shy, the food–combiners, the additive avoiders.

Please don't think I'm intolerant of those with intolerances. I'd hate to be the hostess who brought on a guest's anaphylactic choking because of a falsely placed pistachio. It's just that everyone suddenly seems to be taking such public pride in their prejudices. Instead of quietly following their own dietary code, they have to pontificate in supermarkets, interrogate waiters, preface any meal with a litany of their preferences, brandish their beliefs like stigmata. They're allowing their habits to turn them into nuns.

Secular food purists are becoming as unwavering and somehow altogether as sanctimonious as the religious in the following of their dietary codes. It's a phenomenon that wouldn't surprise the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who has specialised in the study of taboos and cleanliness. She argues that societies and cultures need these elaborate codes of practice. They are a form of social control but also of social protection. Food is an ideal vehicle for prescribing what is clean and what should be banned. But even then the choice of taboo is arbitrary. The fact of it is what matters.

Many others maintain that however far fetched some cultural habits appear to be they can be explained rationally if you go back far enough. Dietary requirements begin as practical advice, then somehow transmute into sacred precepts. This is as true for modern diets as it is for traditional religious ones. An Atkins adherent will recoil from a chip buttie as violently as a Muslim would from a pork scratching.

Centuries of scholars have puzzled over why the pig inspires such passionate Semitic revulsion. Eating swine is expressly forbidden in both the Bible and the Koran. There have been countless attempts to find logical reasons for the stricture. The functionalist Marvin Harris traces it back to cost effectiveness. Ruminant animals more efficiently graze, digest cellulose and transfer protein to humans when consumed. In dry lands where vegetation is at a premium, pigs merely eat our food.

Another view is that, rather than being reviled because it is unclean, the pig should not be eaten because genetically it is too similar to us. So to eat pig veers dangerously close to cannibalism. In a similar spirit Buddhists and Hindus who believe in reincarnation will choose to be vegetarian to avoid the possibility of eating a species they may be destined to become.

Whatever the approach, the consensus is that there is no medical logic to claims that the pig is unhealthy. Only poorly cared for pigs eat sewage, roll in dirt and carry disease. But tell that to the average practising Jew or Muslim. For them, the pig is an abomination, unclean and untouchable. The taboo is so powerful, so all–consuming, that mere logic doesn't stand a chance.

The pig's iconic power is gloriously invoked by Salman Rushdie in one of those fatwah moments in The Satanic Verses. After a mysterious illness, the adulated Indian movie star Gibreel Farishta marks his loss of faith with a massive act of rebellion:

"He got out of the limousine at the Taj hotel and without looking left or right went directly into the great dining–room with its buffet table groaning under the weight of forbidden foods, and he loaded his plate with all of it, the pork sausages from Wiltshire and the cured York hams and the rashers of bacon from godknowswhere; with the gammon steaks of his unbelief and the pig's trotters of secularism; and then, standing there in the middle of the hall, while photographers popped up from nowhere, he began to eat as fast as possible, stuffing the dead pigs into his face so rapidly that bacon rashers hung out of the sides of his mouth."

Howard Jacobson's tortured hero Sefton Goldberg, in Coming From Behind, is convinced that the whole ritual of High Table in Cambridge has been designed to underline his Jewish outsiderliness, no matter how he tries to fit in:

"Sefton raised a corpuscle of pig to his lips, looked under it and behind it and around the sides of it, talked over it and through it, pondered and queried and interrogated it, before returning it to his plate in favour of a stain of apple sauce. And he discovered for the first time the enormous conversational advantage these goyische tactics gave one over the poor schmegegges whose noses were buried in their bowls."

When it comes to the pig, there is little point debating whether the pragmatic or the spiritual came first. What matters is that this aversion, like all religious dietary codes, has been distilled into faith.

Today's secular food faddists observe exactly the same pattern. Sensible advice turns into creed, good habits into unbreakable laws. The vegetarian who respects the rights of animals is rarely content merely trying to avoid eating them, but instead must check the ingredients of every foodstuff for traces of animal related fats or additives.

Every modern slimming diet will formulate its own set of rules into a metatext of forbidding. Nothing but grapefruit and the occasional piece of toast. Only raw fruit for three days. The California diet? As much fruit as you like but nothing else. The hip and thigh diet? Fibre and whole foods but no sugar, no fat, no alcohol.

The more precise the rules, the more people like them. The Hays diet fussily advises on how to combine and separate various food groups. Atkins disciples don't just cut down on pasta and bread. Not a crumb of it must touch your lips or your metabolism will revert, the magic will tarnish. It's the belief that something deeper than mere food consumption is at work that seems to be the hook. Something that moves in mysterious ways. The slimming world has co–opted the language of faith, the exhortation of the pulpit.

The preface to The New Atkins Diet Revolution, claiming sales of over ten million, adopts a kind of Southern Baptist rail against the orthodoxy of low–fat worship: "I'll wager that there has never been another example in modern medicine of propaganda of such magnitude than the statements made by those worshipping the low–fat dogma."

Advocates of alternative slimming packages are fighting back with their own sermons. In the current edition of Rosemary Conley's Diet and Fitness, Dr Hilary Jones explains "why the Atkins Diet could harm your health", while Slimmer promises" "Carbs: the Real Story", which is of course that they're much better for you than fat.

No matter what the creed, though, the tactics are identical: to prey on the guilty and insecure, then offer salvation through faith and goodness. Most diets promise miracles. "Get a Flat Tum in Five Minutes a Day!" "Lose a stone in just six weeks!" To achieve this state of grace you must follow the true path and never stray, though sin can be forgiven. "Don't panic if you fall off the wagon once in a while," comforts one of Conley's star slimmers. And psychiatrist Raj Persaud, writing in the same magazine, wonders: "Are you trying too hard to be good?"

The multi–million industry of WeightWatchers relies heavily on the culture of confession. In Church halls up and down the land members make their weekly confessions of the sins of cream cakes and shop–bought mayonnaise, longing for chocolate, fridge frenzies, biscuit binges. Out it all comes, on with the ritual humiliation of the scales, then the blessing and forgiveness and the chance to start again.

While the road to salvation may be familiar, its ultimate destination these days has shifted: from the next world to this one, from a spiritual heaven to a personal one. Self–affirmation is the mantra of the saints of the slimming world, the diet divas. When Rosemary Conley's Slimmer of the Year lost nine stone, her new shape transformed her life by showing her true happiness. Runner–up Karin Fall reveals: "Losing 12st 1lb has given me the gift of life." Rosemary herself preaches the lesson: "Let them be your inspiration. Don't waste another year of your life. Make 2004 the year YOU find a new you." And the Atkins message is the same. "This book will show you how to change your life once and for all."

Where once the goal was the kingdom of heaven, the new one is the kingdom of self. Immortality can be achieved not through prayer and goodness, but through weight loss, slimness, fitness – eternal youth. Purity of the soul has been converted to purity of the body through the grace of detox.

What has been abandoned, though, is the other side of the fast: the feast. Feast days all over the world celebrate the connection between life and death, body and mind, individual and community. The privations of Lent culminate in a gigantic Easter feast, fatted lamb and all. Each day of the Ramadan fast is sealed by a night of scoffing. The extravagant Jewish Kol Nidre dinner has to get you through 24 hours of fasting just as the Seder, with its heavily symbolic menu, must cushion you against the week's privations. Dietary laws may be strict but they never interfere with one's love of food.

When irrepressible chef Anthony Bourdain made a gastronomic tour of the world he sat down with peasants and gangsters, in five star restaurants and outdoors with Saharan tribesmen. He swallowed the still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon and joined a medieval style pig slaughter in Portugal. At the end of it all he pronounced his worst meal a vegan dinner in California. The reason? There was simply no joy.

So I'd like to propose a toast to unfettered, abandoned appetite. Humanists everywhere should be able to break bread together without worrying too much about its carb level or its additive quotient. Invite strangers into your home, insist on gorging and gluttony, let your table groan with excess. Reach out to the camaraderie and lusts of everyone who has rejected the bloodless rules of the godly and the smug.

Let's have a feast day to celebrate reason. Let's indulge in our greed, gives thanks for our original sins and join together to say no to easy answers and yes to life with all its cruelties, dangers and fabulous guilt–free food.

Sally Feldman is Head of the School of Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.