RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Whether the latest diet fad involves no carbs, low fat, grapefruit and cabbage soup, or all beef all the time, the way to lose weight really boils down to the same thing: Eat less and exercise more. So why do people shell out good money for diet books, adding new ones every year to best-seller lists? NPR's Lynn Neary explores the phenomenon.

LYNN NEARY: Maria Langer, a freelance writer and commercial helicopter pilot, seems like the kind of person who is nobody's fool. But she admits over the years, she's forked over more than a few dollars on the latest diet book.

Ms. MARIA LANGER (Writer): I bought in on the Suzanne Somers book, also the Zone books, South Beach Diet books and the Atkins Diet books.

NEARY: Now, Langer says, she is through with diet books. Writing on her blog, An Eclectic Mind, Langer said she bought one of the season's big hits, "The Flat Belly Diet," and discovered nothing new inside. She felt like she had been sucked in with promises too good to be true.

Ms. LANGER: I just seem to page right to the one page where this person had lost something like 30-plus pounds, and that kind of stuck in my mind. And also stuck in my mind was on the cover, it tells you no crunches, you know, so it's telling you that you don't have to exercise, and it kind of lures you in.

Mr. EDWARD ASH-MILBY (Barnes and Noble): You know, that is part of the formula.

NEARY: Edward Ash-Milby is a buyer of health and fitness books for Barnes and Noble.

Mr. ASH-MILBY: The way they attract customers to the book is by having an interesting title and, you know, offering that promise. It's very compelling. I mean, how could you not want a flat belly?

NEARY: Promises of quick results, says Ash-Milby, are exactly what sell diet books; that and a lot of marketing muscle. And it helps to be a celebrity or to have a platform for promoting the book.

Bethany Frankel is a chef who achieved reality show stardom on Bravo's "Real Housewives of New York City." Now she has a best-selling diet book.

Ms. BETHANY FRANKEL (Natural Foods Chef): Hi, I'm Bethany Frankel. I'm a natural foods chef, and my book is called "Naturally Thin: Unleash Your Skinny Girl and Free Yourself from a Lifetime of Dieting." Which is exactly what the book is. It's basically a book that is the be-all, end-all, never-diet-again book.

NEARY: And that is the ultimate diet book promise. You'll never have to diet again. But of course, says Ash-Milby, that's not how it usually works.

Mr. ASH-MILBY: The diet category offers tremendous amount of repeat business, because people - they'll hook into one diet, it doesn't work so well for them, and you just don't know how well they follow it. And then they find that there's another diet that sounds more interesting.

Ms. CAROL LAY (Cartoonist): People want magic bullets.

NEARY: Carol Lay knows what she's talking about. She spent her whole life losing — and gaining — weight. But it was hard to face the simple truth: She had to change the way she ate.

Ms. LAY: The first time that a trainer put me on a restricted diet plan, I was shocked that I would have to eat nonfat, unsugared yogurt. It was like, Oh my god, I'd rather drink motor oil. I literally cried.

NEARY: Now Lay has her own diet book, "The Big Skinny." A cartoonist, Lay tells the story of her ultimately successful battle against the bulge in pictures. In the end, the way she lost the weight — and kept it off — was simplicity itself.

Ms. LAY: I had to keep track of my calories and make sure I exercised every day. Because when I get into not wanting to look at the numbers, I tend to just slide down that slippery slope that's greased with fat and sugar.

NEARY: But Julia Cameron believes it is words, not numbers, that provide the key to successful dieting. The author of "The Artist's Way," Cameron is well-known for her classes in creativity.

Ms. JULIA CAMERON (Author): For 25 years, as I taught creative unblocking, I had seen that my students would become more lean and more fit as they worked with creativity tools. And so I found myself thinking, Oh my god, this has been right underneath my nose. Writing is a weight-loss tool.

NEARY: You got it; Cameron says you can write your way to thinness. Her new book, "The Writing Diet," has some standard dieting advice: Walk 20 minutes a day, drink lots of water. But beyond that, Cameron says you should take time in the morning to write down your thoughts, and then keep an eating journal through the day.

Ms. CAMERON: Because what I have found is that all of these diets work until we stop working them. And when you have a journal and morning pages, you catch yourself as you head into a relapse. And you go, whoops, oh, here I go, and it allows you to start over right then instead of taking the full tumult of the fall.

NEARY: So when all is said and done, can any book really help the hapless dieter stay on course? Carol Lay thinks so.

Ms. LAY: This one can.

NEARY: And you want to believe her, but somehow it's hard not to think, oh, all the diet book authors says that.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: To see excerpts of Carol Lay's graphic novel, "The Big Skinny," visit our Web site at npr.org.

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