35 years of health and wellness, Berkeley vetted

The story of The Wellness Letter and the people who made it possible

By Austin Price | November 7, 2019

The founding editorial board for The Wellness Letter in University Hall in the early 1990s. Managing editor Dale Ogar, publisher Rodney Friedman, professor and editorial board chair Sheldon Margen, and Dean Emerita Joyce Lashof. Photo courtesy of Dale Ogar

In October 1984, the first issue of an eight-page health newsletter provided readers with a guide to picking out a pair of running shoes. It also answered questions about Nicorette gum, gave advice on selecting and storing tofu, and offered other lifestyle tips—all scientifically vetted by Berkeley Public Health faculty. 

The Wellness Letter was created to inform the public about the preventative side of health, emphasizing areas of wellbeing that people can apply to their daily lives. Diet and nutrition, fitness, household habits, sleep, stress, mental health, and so on. This start-up newsletter included an editorial board of Berkeley Public Health faculty, plus health professionals from around the Bay Area, including UCSF.

Sometimes the publication’s information goes against the grain of the popular media. For instance, The Wellness Letter has taken a firm stance that vitamin C pills don’t prevent colds or cancer. In fact, it has stated that supplements generally don’t provide the vitamins and minerals our body needs—food does. 

But debunking health myths and informing the public serves only half the purpose of The Wellness Letter. The other half pertains to the students at Berkeley Public Health. “The mission from the beginning has been to bring the public well-vetted information,” said John Swartzberg, professor emeritus and chair of the editorial board. “And at the same time, revenues go to the students to support their education.”

In more than three decades, The Wellness Letter has earned millions of dollars in subscription revenues while providing its evidence-based information to the public. “It’s a win-win,” said Swartzberg. “It has helped us train more public health professionals while at the same time getting good information out to the public about their health.”

The first issue of The Wellness Letter, published October 1984.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of The Wellness Letter, which has grown to include a series of annual white papers and other newsletters—altogether called Health & Wellness Publications. On November 12, the Berkeley Public Health community is hosting a Dean’s Speaker Series event in celebration of the publications as they move forward into its next 35 years. But not without reflecting on the history and people that brought us The Wellness Letter

The Wellness Letter started with a phone call between New York City publisher Rodney Friedman and UC Berkeley nutritional scientist Sheldon Margen. At that time, Harvard Medical School circulated a popular health newsletter vetted by medical professionals, but Friedman thought there were gaps. He wanted to publish a newsletter on healthcare that wasn’t strictly medical—one that would complement, without limiting itself to, doctor’s orders. He looked to the field of public health. And, to shake up the largely East Coast-based health newsletter market, he looked west. 

In 1982, Friedman called Margen, an expert on the long-term effects of diet on human health. Twenty years earlier, as a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, Margen had carried out a series of landmark studies—significantly informing the U.S. dietary recommendations that still show up on food labels today. Earlier in his career, Margen had practiced medicine and served in World War II as a doctor, treating soldiers and establishing feeding regimens for returning prisoners of war.

The timing was right. Public-private enterprises like this were rare at the time, but as Berkeley Public Health’s head of nutrition, Margen was looking for ways to deliver the latest nutrition science to the public while supporting the school with some revenue. 

He invited Friedman to Berkeley to meet with himself, then Dean Joyce Lashof, and staff member Dale Ogar to hatch out plans for this new public health newsletter, and The Wellness Letter was born.

It took time for Margen, Lashof and Ogar to convince the Berkeley Public Health community that a private-public partnership would not compromise the integrity of the school. Lashof assured the faculty that the information would be evidence-based and personally vetted by her and the editorial board, free from the editorial influences of advertisers and donors. This would be The Wellness Letter’s calling card in the health newsletter market. Plus, royalties would benefit students.

It’s a win-win. This newsletter has helped us train more public health professionals while at the same time getting good information out to the public about their health.

When the inaugural issue was published a few years later, no one knew how long the newsletter would last. But as the years went on, The Wellness Letter moved forward at full steam. “We just never ran out of things to say,” said Ogar, who still serves as managing editor.

The Wellness Letter became a household direct mail newsletter for people across the United States and beyond. By 1988, it had the most subscribers of any newsletter in the country, and a few years later circulation had exceeded one million. Ogar estimated that each issue at that time was read by at least two million individuals. The editorial team also published 11 books, including several cookbooks, home health encyclopedias and other hardcover volumes related to health.

“We completely exceeded the expectations that anybody had for this,” said Ogar.

Time and technology brought change to The Wellness Letter. The heyday of printed subscription-based newsletters yielded to the era of the internet, where people expect content free of charge. In response, Mike Cunnion, CEO of Remedy Health, worked with Swartzberg and Ogar to create BerkeleyWellness.com, an online outlet for some of the information published each month by The Wellness Letter.

“Over a period of 35 years, there’s been so much change in the ways that people consume information and in the way that people behave in relation to health,” said Cunnion. “One of the biggest challenges is how do you stay relevant? How do you evolve as consumer behavior and media changes?”

Today, Berkeley Public Health publishes 16 issues of The Wellness Letter each year along with 16 issues of Health After 50—a newsletter that has a greater focus on medical conditions and treatment—and a catalogue of annual white papers and reports on different health and medical topics. Altogether this content is called Health & Wellness Publications. Recently, a new partnership with ConnectWell makes this content available through the digital platforms of employers and health providers.

Teh-wei Hu, Berkeley Public Health professor emeritus and editorial board member, vets Mandarin translations of certain articles from The Wellness Letter published in a periodical in Taiwan, as well as in The World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper published in the United States. And in partnership with the Transamerica Center for Health Studies, the Health & Wellness editorial board has packaged content from The Wellness Letter into an online bilingual newsletter called Notas de Salud or Health Notes.

“There’s so little Spanish language health information out there,” said Hector De La Torre, executive director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies. “We hope to help provide basic, important information to the general population.”

Through both the digital manifestation and language translations of the Health & Wellness content, readers can expect the scale of The Wellness Letter to change, but not its integrity. The Wellness Letter and the various Health & Wellness Publications continue to build on the mission of the original founders: to support students and deliver evidence-based information, giving readers a better sense of how they can take control of their health. 

“That is, after all, the mission of Berkeley Public Health,” said Ogar.