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Physician’s book gives tips for better health

Doctor and author Richard Besser prefers tap water to bottled. And, he advises, take the money you are spending on multivitamins and put it toward eating more fruits and vegetables.

In 2009, Dr. Richard Besser faced a public health crisis just months after being named the interim chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With a calm voice and ability to communicate vital public health information in a way the average citizen could understand, Besser informed and soothed a jittery nation during the outbreak of H1N1 “swine flu.” His performance impressed many - including Amy Entelis, then head of talent at ABC News. She sent him an email asking him if he’d ever considered being an on-air medical correspondent.

And so the pediatrician and longtime CDC researcher switched roles. As chief health and medical editor at ABC News, Besser has been addressing medical stories to millions of viewers. He said he tries to avoid jargon and present information clearly, concisely and “with a personal touch.” He takes that same approach to answering almost 70 common but sometimes puzzling health questions in his new book: “Tell Me the Truth, Doctor” (Hyperion, $24.99).

They include:

Is antibacterial soap better than plain soap? (He says no.)

Do adults need shots? (Yes.)

Do I need to wash pre-washed lettuce? (Probably not. Washing at home could contaminate the pre-washed greens because our kitchens and hands may harbor bacteria. Instead, check the date and try to use within a day or two of purchase, and keep it well sealed and away from raw meat, which could contaminate it.)

Some recommendations are simple but not necessarily easy to follow (to lose weight, follow three rules: eat less, eat differently and move more). And there may be a few surprises, such as not washing chicken before you cook it (details below).

Besser said his favorite part of the book was working alongside his wife, Jeanne, a former food columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who also has written five cookbooks.

“It was truly a partnership. At first, we didn’t know how we would work together. It was incredibly seamless and fun. I loved it,” he said.

Besser recently talked to the AJC:

Q: So what’s the deal with not washing chicken before you cook it?

A: When that water hits the chicken, it can splatter germs all over your kitchen, especially the area around your sink, cutting boards and faucet. It may sound counterintuitive, but the bottom line is: Don’t wash the bird.

Q: You are passionate about water being the beverage of choice, and you also say tap water is the way to go. Why is that?

A: There are so many good things about water. And the first thing is your body will tell you when you are thirsty. I see so many patients who are concerned about their weight, and when I talk to them about what they drink, they talk about sodas and sports drinks and juice. If you are drinking a 20-ounce Coke every day, just switching that one Coke to water, you could lose 20 pounds in a year.

Somehow the simplicity of water — of getting some from your kitchen faucet — just doesn’t seem good enough anymore. When you think of bottled water, you think of this beautiful gushing water spring, but the bottled water you are drinking doesn’t come from there — they simply take tap water and filter it. And when you look at tap water and bottled water, there are more regulations overseeing tap water than bottled water.

Some people don’t like the taste of tap water. Just get a home water filter. It’s cheaper and better for the environment.

Q: You are not a big fan of taking vitamins. Why is that?

A: I have people who say, “I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables so I take a vitamin.” It is not the same. You get all kinds of micronutrients and other things when you get your vitamins through food. The studies that look at the benefits of vitamin pills are really a wash — some say yes, others say no. And many vitamins taken in high doses have been shown to be harmful. Take the money you are spending on multivitamins and put it toward eating more fruits and vegetables.

Q: We often have just a few minutes with our doctor. How can we make the most of these appointments?

A: I think there are a couple things you can do. Write down the questions over the year. Not the pressing questions like my shoulder hurts and why does that hurt (in which you would need more immediate attention) but those questions like about worrying about not getting enough exercise and not getting enough sleep. You can contact the office ahead of time and see if the doctor may want those questions ahead of time that may take some work. And the other thing is to understand your family history. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Knowing your family history can help your doctor take precautions to keep you and your family healthy. And it’s important to connect with your doctor and know it’s OK to fire your doctor. I fired my first doctor in New Jersey. He wanted to do a lot of tests. And I had just turned 50, and he wanted me to take a baby aspirin every day and said everyone, when they turn 50, should be taking a baby aspirin. I said I don’t have any risk factors and I was concerned the risk of stomach bleeding outweighs the benefits for my heart. And he still wanted me to take that baby aspirin.

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