"Greetings in Jesus!" writes Teresa J. Young, a clinical dietitian from Nashville, in a glowing tribute to a new weight loss plan. "I was very skeptical at first. ... However, I knew in my spirit that God had ordained this program and that somehow I was to be a part of it."

Young lost 12 pounds in 12 weeks. She is one of an increasing number of people who are signing up for the Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian slimming program in which participants learn to "transfer this urge for a pan of brownies to that of hungering and thirsting after righteousness." Started four years ago by Tennessee dietitian Gwen Shamblin, Weigh Down is now offered in 1,300 churches across the country -- with 75 to 100 new churches signing on every week, Shamblin says.

Studies show that we are fatter than ever. And it seems that the more weight-obsessed we are, the less we lose and the more we revile the pudgy, the plump, the rotund, the fat and the morbidly obese. A president who is moderately bulky is constantly picked on for not being thinner; the only successful fat women are comedians. The billion-dollar weight loss industry is a dizzying carousel of promises, hardly ever fulfilled.

Into this vortex comes Weigh Down, which can offer up testimonials as enthusiastic as anything Susan Powter or Slim Fast ever produced -- the inspiring sagas of women and men who have lost 20, 40, 100 pounds and counting.

"God Almighty was able to change something in me that I had failed {to change} 100 times before," says Terri Mangialardi, a participant at the Weigh Down program at Evangel Assembly of God in Memphis. Local workshop organizers must have the local pastor's approval before starting a program at a church. God "not only changed the outside of me from a size 26/28 to a size 10, but also changed my mind and heart to where food is not controlling me."

And all this without a diet or required exercise, without calorie-counting or portion-measuring or fat gram-watching, without yucky liquids or strange fat-busting potions, without appetite suppressors or talk about metabolism or food groups. Basically what the counselors say is: Eat less, pray more. Feed on the Word instead of the brownies.

But remember: God made chocolate cake. If you want to eat it you should, they say. They realize this all sounds illogical.

"People are just becoming sick of chicken with the skin pulled off," says Shamblin, 39, a peppy blonde who now works out of Cookeville, Tenn. "Dieting is putting a Band-Aid on a much deeper problem. ... If you get a bird out of the water and throw it back into the air it will breathe again. That's what we do -- we put people back into the medium that was intended for them to live in, and that is this relationship with God. He was intended to solve all their problems. And as they are more at peace they will have less heartburn, come off Prozac, not have a spastic colon, their blood pressure is dropping, relationships are repaired."

As Shamblin sees it, everyone is given some cross to bear in life, such as an obsession with money, alcohol, sex, gambling or food. Fat people just are more visible than anyone else. God loves fat people, she says; but if you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, as God intended, then you will not be fat. "God is a genius," she says. Weigh Down is just beginning to catch on locally. On a recent winter night at Bolling Air Force Base, at least 30 women showed up for an orientation session, and 25 of them registered afterward, each laying out $103 for the 12-week course.

Mary Tupper, 41, wants to lose 15 pounds before accompanying her husband, a Navy commander, at his new post in Chile. "I'll be doing a lot of entertaining and I hear the Chileans like poolside entertaining," says Tupper. "I've never tried God for weight loss. I've tried Him on other things. I never thought He really cared how fat you were -- He loves you anyway. But He can do anything, so maybe He can do this too."

Tupper's husband doesn't believe she can lose weight without stringent exercise and a low-fat diet, a regime he is following. So she made him a bet -- whoever reaches his goal first has to pay the other $100.

Patricia Leverett ia taking the Weigh Down Workshop for a second time. A recovering alcoholic, she is 29 and has five children. Her husband is a serviceman posted at Bolling. She doesn't know exactly how much she has lost, but she gestures to the buttons on her blouse. "Before I started this workshop I couldn't button these buttons," she says.

Arthur Frank, an internist who heads the obesity management program at George Washington University Hospital, says the supportive aspects of the program sound like "an important plus," but he is skeptical that you can trust your body naturally to crave a balanced diet, as Shamblin says it will. Laboratory tests on rats given free choice of food (it is impossible to test humans, because we are so imprinted with ideas about what we "should" eat) show that with half a chance, a rat will pick junk food.

"Tests on infants show the same thing," he says. "Given a choice, they will pick potato chips and chocolate over carrots."

Furthermore, he says, while the notion that people can learn to eat only when they are hungry and stop when they are full is great, the practical reality is that it is very difficult to do that. "People are not good at identifying hunger well," he says. "Many people who are overweight don't get appropriate hunger signals and surely not stop signals. It's fine if you can do it. ... It's just simplistic."

The "thin-eating" concept is not new, Shamblin says. She doles out tips: When you think you're hungry, wait 10 minutes. (Think about Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert.) Cut all your portions in half. Use smaller plates. Sip, don't gulp. In restaurants, ask for a doggie bag. Take an "itty-bitty" taste of everything on your plate and then eat only what you like best. "We are teaching obedience, not denial," she says.

What is different about Weigh Down, Shamblin says, is that it addresses "spiritually clogged arteries" and urges people to abandon what is essentially a sinful obsession with food. At each meeting everyone watches a videotape; discussion and prayer follow. Participants get a set of audiotapes for reinforcement during the week, and a workbook of "homework" that asks them to reflect on various Bible verses as well as the history of their relationship with food. The workshop "coordinators" are not trained but follow the plan dietitian Shamblin has developed. And they do not have any particular expertise in nutrition, psychology or medicine.

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body. ... Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

-- Matthew 6:25-26

When Shamblin wants candy, she buys a package of M&Ms and cuts a corner off. Then she sticks her finger in and wiggles out one piece. She puts it in her mouth and sucks it until the candy coating melts. "Then I push my tongue up to the top of my mouth and all this melted chocolate comes out."

Eventually, she says, you find that giving things up is "the funnest thing in the world."

The testimonials don't stop. Sandi Samson, the 32-year-old mother of four who is the coordinator of the Bolling workshop, says she was bulimic in college and, after she kicked that, became obsessed with exercise. This happened even though she had already turned her life over to Jesus Christ. By the time she heard about Weigh Down last year, she had accumulated more than 50 weight loss books and had taken a course in "thin eating," but still was constantly fighting the battle of the bulge. Now she has lost 40 pounds "without even trying."

Sometimes her body tells her not to eat anything at all. On days when she is going out to dinner, she will eat little during the day and then have what she wants at night. If she feels like eating sweets, she does, and likewise vegetables, starch, fat or protein. Scientific theories -- like how your metabolism shuts down if you don't eat, or that some people are genetically predisposed to gain weight -- don't impress her very much.

"I just feel like science is not what you trust," says Samson. "I mean, it's interesting, but obviously you've seen them switch. Remember oat bran? Now it's fat. Everybody's to the point where nobody's eating fats anymore. And you don't think that's bad for you?"

Samson has given up running. She doesn't even weigh herself anymore. "I don't think a number on a scale should determine what I should weigh." Her highest weight was 178, "but mentally I was 400 pounds." Some days she has cake for breakfast; some days it's half a bagel. As she talks, sitting in a Capitol Hill restaurant, a basket of delicious breads sits in front of her. Over a two-hour conversation, she doesn't eat a crumb.

"I think some people are afraid to be hungry," she says, echoing Shamblin.

But isn't transferring an obsession with food to a obsession with God still a mania? "That's like saying you're obsessing on your husband and you're in love with him," she says. "It's not religion we're talking about. It's a personal relationship with you and your creator."

Reading the Bible is not a duty for her. "It's almost like I want to go get my love letters that my boyfriend just wrote."

When her belt starts feeling tight, "I get on my knees. I get back down and say, 'God, I'm really struggling right now, and I haven't been doing good, and I just ask for your encouragement today. I really want to surrender to you.'"

For Barbara Brown of Hyattsville, just getting down on her knees would be an accomplishment. So far, neither God nor man has released her from the bondage of weight, and she has tried. Brown, a well-spoken woman of 47, weighs 450 pounds. She had to give up her work as a real estate agent a year ago because she has trouble with stairs.

It is the morbidly obese like Brown who could be the real test of the Weigh Down program. Fifteen pounds, even 30 or 40 -- those are not impossible goals. But helping someone as heavy as Brown may be a project for professionals.

Brown lists the things she has tried: Optifast (when Oprah did it), Nutri-System, Weight Watchers (eight times), herbs, drugs (for suppressing appetite, speeding the metabolism, eating fat). She's seen a nutritionist and a therapist. She bought a book called "Lord Help Me, the Devil Wants Me to Be Fat," which pointed out how overeating abuses the body.

"That hurt me," she says, her voice catching. "I knew it was true."

Each attempt Brown makes produces temporary weight loss and then a ballooning weight gain. She figures she has gained and lost 1,500 pounds in her life, and her health has suffered. Her life is on the line. That's why she mustered up everything she had to go to the Weigh Down orientation.

"It's a miracle that I even got there," she says. "I really believe that this might help me."

But she didn't make it back to the next session last Thursday. The others who were there prayed for her.

CAPTION: Sandra Singleton was one of the participants last week at a Weigh Down Workshop at Bolling Air Force Base.

CAPTION: Participants in a workshop at Bolling Air Force Base. "We are teaching obedience, not denial," says the program's founder.

CAPTION: "I just feel like science is not what you trust," says Sandi Samson, who bows her head in prayer before leading a Weigh Down Workshop session.