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Diet Books: Fat On Profits, Skinny On Results?

Cartoonist Carol Lay's graphic novel, <em>The Big Skinny,</em> details the author's successful weight loss regimen.
Cartoonist Carol Lay's graphic novel, The Big Skinny, details the author's successful weight loss regimen.

Diet books are perennials on best-seller lists, and every year a new one seems to capture the public's imagination. But whether the latest fad involves no carbohydrates, low fats, grapefruit, cabbage soup or all beef all the time, the way to lose weight really always boils down to the same thing: Eat less and exercise more. So why do people shell out good money for diet books?

Maria Langer, a freelance writer and commercial helicopter pilot, seems like the kind of person who is nobody's fool. But she admits that over the years she's forked over more than a few dollars on the latest diet book: "I bought in on the Suzanne Somers book, also the Zone books, South Beach Diet books and Atkins Diet books."

Now, Langer says she's through with diet books. After buying one of this season's big hits — The Flat Belly Diet — she felt like she had been sucked in with promises too good to be true.

"On the cover it tells you 'no crunches' ... So it's telling you [that] you don't have to exercise, and it just kind of lures you in," she says.

Edward Ash-Milby, a buyer of health and fitness books for Barnes and Noble, says that diet books thrive on promises of quick, easy results.

"The way they attract customers to the book is by having an interesting title and, you know, offering that promise," says Ash-Milby. "How could you not want a flat belly?"

Add to that a healthy amount of marketing muscle — often bolstered with a celebrity tie-in or "a platform" for promoting the book — and you have a formula for publishing success, if not weight loss success.

"The diet category offers a tremendous amount of repeat business," says Ash-Milby. People "hook into one diet, [and it] doesn't work so well for them ... and they find there is another diet that sounds more interesting."

Cartoonist Carol Lay spent her whole life losing — and gaining — weight before she faced the simple truth: She had to change the way she ate.

"The first time a trainer put me on a restricted diet plan, I was shocked that I had to eat nonfat, unsugared yogurt. It was like, 'Oh my god, I'd rather drink motor oil,' " she says.

Now Lay has her own diet book, The Big Skinny, which uses pictures to tell the story of her — ultimately successful — battle against the bulge. In the end, her path to losing weight — and keeping it off — was simple: "I had to keep track of my calories and make sure I exercised every day," she says. "Because when I get into denial, not wanting to look at the numbers, I tend to slide down that slippery slope that is greased with fat and sugar."

But Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist's Way, believes the key to diet success is in words, not numbers.

"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 is right underneath my nose ... Writing is a weight loss tool," she says.

That's right: Cameron says you can write your way to thinness. Her new book, The Writing Diet (read an excerpt), has some standard dieting advice, including a recommendation to walk 20 minutes a day and 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 throughout the day.

"What I have found is that all these diets work until we stop working them," says Cameron. "When you have a journal and morning pages, you catch yourself as you head into a relapse."

When all is said and done, can any book really help the hapless dieter stay on course? Lay says hers can — and you want to believe her, but it's hard not to think, "Oh, all the diet book authors says that."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.