The latest addition to the massive number of nutrition and exercise books crowding bookstore shelves comes not from a fitness or food guru but from a first-time author: the federal government.
"A Healthier You" is the title of a new book published this month by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The paperback -- not to be confused with a book by the same name by Sherri Tenpenny that was published in September -- is designed to help you put the latest dietary guidelines into practice. That is, provided that you shell out $12.95 to buy it.
The federal government has long sold pamphlets, books and more via the Government Printing Office. But this is the first time that HHS plans to sell a volume at bookstores and online at commercial sites, such as Amazon.com.
So why is the federal government stepping into personal nutrition publishing?
"The purpose is to help foster health literacy," said U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona. "We do the best we can to get the best science to the American public on lots of good issues, not just nutrition and exercise. But often the barrier is translational. This is a user-friendly pocket guide."
At 340 pages, however, it may take a big pocket to hold it. While much of the content in "A Healthier You" can be found free at various government Web sites, Carmona notes that publishing the information in one volume provides "an opportunity to get the word out in an easy-to-understand way, particularly for those who may be computer-phobic."
"A Healthier You" explains why healthy eating habits matter and makes the case for regular physical activity. It provides guidance on how to start changing habits, underscores the importance of finding balance between calories in and calories out, and explains why eating too much fat, added sugars and salt can undermine efforts to achieve a healthier weight. The book serves up numerous charts, work sheets and lists to help readers put their new habits into action.
Congress mandates revision of the guidelines every five years, but earmarks few, if any, funds to inform the public about the guidelines. Both the guidelines and the well-known food pyramid were revamped earlier this year.
"You can't promote the Dietary Guidelines unless you have a budget," said Eileen Kennedy, dean of the School of Nutrition at Tufts University and a former deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which shares the duties for updating the guidelines. "I applaud the fact that they have come out with this, because they need to think of multiple strategies to reach people at risk."
Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, which places them at increased risk for a host of health problems, from premature heart disease and high blood pressure to diabetes, kidney problems and arthritis.
The book "is loaded with useful, accurate information, which is different from the typical diet book," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. "They've tried to make it readable, with sidebars and graphics. But it is pretty tedious and bland."
Jacobson expressed disappointment that the book "studiously avoids any sharp criticism of any food, no matter how unhealthful it is. . . . I can't imagine many people buying this book."
Harvard University's Walter Willett, who has criticized both the guidelines and the pyramid for overemphasizing dairy products, for touting some refined grains and for not coming down harder on unhealthy trans fats, said he is reserving judgment until he reads the book.
To the extent that "A Healthier You" is based on the guidelines and the pyramid, "there will be some serious problems," Willett said, but noted that "much of the information provided will be useful."
Here's a taste of what "A Healthier You" delivers, along with links to where most of the material can be found at no cost:
Are you at a healthy weight? The body mass index (BMI) chart, which takes into account your height and weight, is one way to tell. Find a free chart for adults at www.consumer.gov/weightloss/bmi.htm, where you will also find a BMI electronic calculator. BMI is figured differently for children and teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a body mass calculator for them at www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/bmi-for-age.htm.
Dietary guidelines. The book contains a summary of what the government suggests the public should be eating; the same info can be found online at www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/executivesummary.htm. The full guidelines are also downloadable free at www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/. A consumer brochure helps you put the guidelines into practice at www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/brochure.htm.
Food guide pyramid. Released by USDA in April, the revised food pyramid appears in "A Healthier You" only as a tiny icon in a long list of government Web sites. To find complete information of pyramid's recommendations, you'll need Web access to use the interactive version at www.mypyramid.gov and MyPyramid Tracker, which keeps up to a year's worth of food and physical activity records online.
Dinner tonight. "A Healthier You" contains more than 100 recipes that are low in fat and sodium, from Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken to 1-2-3 Peach Cobbler. To get the same recipes electronically from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, you can log on to www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/index.htm#recipes.
Share your tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail email@example.com anytime. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.leanplateclub.com.