The year is rapidly coming to a close—which brings the chance to start afresh in January. Do you or the people on your gift list need a jolt or two of inspiration to eat less, exercise more, and just lead a more healthful life? If so, here are nine to choose from. These recent books offer up a wide range of perspectives on how to prevent infirmity and disease. They are written by experts from journalist Michael Pollan, who has spent decades pondering and writing about the evils of the western diet, to David Servan-Schreiber, a psychiatrist who has fought his own battle against brain cancer, to Jan Garavaglia, a medical examiner whose years in the morgue have provided a wealth of insights on how not to die:
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto By Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press, $21.95)
The more Americans worry about their diet, journalist Michael Pollan writes, the less healthy they become. So he reduces the principles to an ultrasimple three: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." By way of elaboration, he engages readers in a lively history of the food industry, nutrition science, and where the western diet goes so badly wrong. Most of the nutritional advice of the past 50 years, he observes—such as cut fats and eat more carbohydrates—has only made Americans sicker and fatter.
Pollan's idea of "food" is what lines the periphery of the supermarket and is sold in its whole state, not the largely artificial foodstuffs on the shelves in between. "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," he advises—or that is incapable of rotting. Other wisdom: Put the pleasure back in food. He points out that when French people, who generally enjoy long leisurely meals but smaller portions than Americans, were asked how they knew when to stop eating, they replied "when they felt full." The typical American answer: "When my plate is clean," or "when I run out." Food for thought.
Anticancer: A New Way of Life By David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. (Viking, $25.95)
"All of us have cancer cells in our body. But not all of us will develop cancer," explains Servan-Schreiber, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and cofounder of the Center for Integrative Medicine. He wasn't so lucky. Anticancer describes his own battle with a brain tumor; today, he is healthy. His quest to enlist his body's natural cancer-fighting abilities, and his examination of what makes cancer cells thrive and what inhibits them, is meant to guide readers toward a new way of life.
He explores the research on how certain foods—such as green tea, berries, dark chocolate, and mushrooms—as well as exercise and meditation support the immune system. (Eating white sugar, white flour, and red meat does the opposite, he notes.) Minimizing exposure to environmental toxins, by replacing scratched Teflon pans, say, and avoiding deodorants containing aluminum, is also mentioned as smart self-defense.
AMA Complete Guide to Prevention and Wellness: What You Need to Know About Preventing Illness, Staying Healthy, and Living Longer By the American Medical Association (Wiley, $35)
This comprehensive, 500-plus-page encyclopedia is crammed with clearly written, practical information on a wide range of topics: how much fiber you need, how to read food labels, how to prevent type 2 diabetes, when to have certain screening tests, how to keep your children healthy. It's also a good reference to have on hand in a crisis, with advice on how to recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke, for example, or how to remove a tick. Perhaps not surprisingly, what you won't find is any acknowledgement of alternative or complementary therapies.
Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World By Lisa Lillien (St. Martin's Griffin, $17.95)
The best diet strategy is to not gain weight in the first place, and Hungry Girl Lisa Lillien is here to tell you how. A self-anointed "food lover" who runs a popular website (www.hungry girl.com), Lillien is not a nutritionist. But she has packed her book with hundreds of recipes and strategies for replacing high-calorie favorites with tasty low-cal alternatives. A sampling: One onion's worth of rings made with Fiber One bran cereal and baked in the oven contain 153 calories and one fat gram versus 450 calories and 25 grams of fat at a fast-food place. Her large blended coffee frappe, made with vanilla soymilk, has 69 calories and one fat gram versus the 550 calories and 20 grams in a Starbucks favorite. Fun facts about preventing pound creep abound.
How Not to Die: Surprising Lessons on Living Longer, Safer, and Healthier From America's Favorite Medical Examiner By Jan Garavaglia, M.D. (Crown Publishers, $24.95)
Garvaglia is Dr. G: Medical Examiner of Discovery Health TV fame; in the series, she solves real-life medical mysteries. Her collected insights from the morgue, where she sees countless deaths that could have been avoided, offer the ultimate prevention guide.
Her advice won't surprise you. "Know your numbers." Your BMI (body mass index), blood sugar level, blood pressure, and lipid profile will have a huge impact on your health. "Listen to your body." And seek medical attention early when you detect something amiss. "Practice good hygiene." Hand washing is one of the best ways to avoid illness. "Drive carefully." Garavaglia notes that a death certificate offers only five choices—homicide, suicide, natural, accident, and undetermined—but that she'd like to add stupidity. "Life is a series of choices," she writes. And too often, people make the wrong ones.
The South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life By Arthur Agatston, M.D., with Joseph Signorile, Ph.D. (Rodale, $25.95)
In this recent addition to the South Beach franchise, cardiologist Agatston has added a metabolism-revving 20-minute-a-day interval workout and body-toning program designed to strengthen core muscles. The exercise instructions are easy to follow, and photos are included.
The diet recommendations are more of the same—high-fiber carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; good fats; lean protein, and low-fat dairy—though the book adds new recipes and meal plans.
The Longevity Factor: How Resveratrol and Red Wine Activate Genes for a Longer and Healthier Life By Joseph Maroon, M.D. (Atria Books, $26.95)
It's easy to enjoy a book that extols the virtues of eating chocolate and drinking red wine to live longer, feel better, and prevent diseases like diabetes and cancer. Neurosurgeon Maroon discusses recent longevity research and examines emerging theory that resveratrol, a substance found in the skins of red grapes, is a gene-activating compound with such health benefits as improved memory, coordination, and mobility, prevention of weight gain, and increased energy. Other foods that activate our anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antiaging genes, he notes, include soybeans, pomegranates, apples, and red and black beans. Maroon also devotes a section to the importance of balancing your life as well as your diet, with equal measures of family, work, spirituality, and exercise.
Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes Without Drugs By Neal D. Barnard, M.D. (Rodale, paperback, $15.95)
Barnard, a professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical School, shows that people with type 2 diabetes can cut their blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity through simple changes to diet, thus reducing or eliminating the need for medications. The emphasis is on eating vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, and raw foods, and avoiding animal products, vegetable oils, and nuts. His recommendations are also valuable to people hoping to prevent full-blown diabetes.
The Migraine Brain: Your Breakthrough Guide to Fewer Headaches, Better Health By Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., and Elaine McArdle (Free Press, $25)
More than 30 million Americans suffer from migraines. If you are one of them, this guide has lots of practical information to impart, from the best ways to prevent migraines to finding your triggers to drugs and treatments available. Bernstein, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, is the founder and director of her own clinic, the Women's Headache Center in Cambridge, Mass. She also examines alternative preventive strategies such as yoga, biofeedback, acupuncture, and massage.