USDA 'SuperTracker' Makes Dietary Guidelines More Accessible

12/27/2011 04:04 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012

As HuffPost Food reported recently, most Americans are not following the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), a set of federal guidelines for healthful eating. In fact, a study from the market research firm The NPD Group found that the average American only eats close to the DGA requirements a meager seven days per year. Seen another way, Americans eat according to federal guidelines only 2 percent of the time. But why?

While the DGAs seem basic enough -- including things like eating more vegetables and whole grains and fewer foods with saturated fat and added sugar -- implementing them can be a challenge. How can we keep our salt and fat consumption down while also trying to eat a sufficient number of calories? Is it possible to eat 3 cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit each day? That's where the SuperTracker, a new online tool from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who created the DGAs, comes in. The agency hopes the easy-to-use online database and diet journal system will make Americans more successful at eating well.

"Along with MyPlate, SuperTracker helps Americans put the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans into action," said Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsak in a video statement. It also helps users put their physical activity in the context of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, from the Department of Health and Human Services.

But does it actually help? As the new nutrition and fitness editor, I thought I'd give it a try. When the 2010 DGAs were first announced last January, like a lot of people, I was pleasantly surprised by many of the updates to the guidelines from their previous iteration in 2005. For the first time, the USDA suggested that we eat less food overall. That doesn't seem controversial, but think about it: the agency -- an arm of which is responsible for promoting American agriculture -- suggested we eat less of the food that's made here. While previous DGAs consisted only of suggestions like eating more fruits, veggies and calcium-rich foods, they didn't address the profound problem of overall consumption rates. This time around, not only did the USDA suggest eating less food overall, it specifically recommended consuming less sugar and saturated fat by swapping sugary beverages for water, subbing in whole grains for refined ones, and composing each meal of at least 50 percent fruits and veggies. Overall, the DGAs acknowledged that we simply eat too many calories per day, per person and it offered some solutions to help.

Much of this change may have to do with Vilsak's own experience with government dietary guidelines before he joined the Obama administration -- namely, that he didn't have one. While introducing the 2010 DGAs last January, he told reporters, "I must admit personally, I had never read the dietary guidelines until I got this job."

In an effort to combat this type of aversion, Vilsak and his staff have worked hard to create a more user-friendly set of guidelines and tools to help people implement changes to their diets. In June, for example, they replaced the Food Guide Pyramid with the MyPlate graphic -- an image of a plate divided into sections that represent each food group, which is meant to help clarify proportions. Now, the SuperTracker application allows individual users to input their meals and activity levels in an effort to see how they stack up against a perfect model. "One of our pillars is to make sure we have state of the art, science-based dietary guidelines," says Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director of Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the USDA. "SuperTracker is designed to help consumers put it into action."

So I will. All week, I'll chronicle my eating habits using the SuperTracker system and I'll be writing about it here. Yesterday, I signed up and added information about my age, gender, height, weight and activity level. I learned that I could eat up to 2,200 calories per day, higher than I would have anticipated. Next, I input my day's food into their 'Food Tracker' system, which I approached with some suspicion. In the past, I've found nutrition databases to be lacking in many of my favorite go-to ingredients. Granted, I'm not your average eater. My quinoa consumption can best be described as a major contributor to the Bolivian economy. I mostly eat whole foods I make myself and avoid prepared, convenience meals -- even the so-called fast food "light" options like turkey subs and salad "shakers." I eat kale like it's my job (and in some ways, I've actually made it my job). But the SuperTracker database included some toughies, even roasted goose. On the other hand, I had to make a substitution, listing carrot soup instead of butternut squash soup, which wasn't an option. What's more, special diet items are not listed at all. I ate vegan pancakes for breakfast, but had to record them as regular ones. And though there was an entry for gingerbread, it surely didn't account for my recipe, which contains whole grain flour and molasses and brown rice syrup in place of refined sugar.

SuperTracker Day 1:

Breakfast: Vegan blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, coffee with soy milk
Lunch: Leftover roasted goose sandwich with mustard, kale and pickles on rye bread
Snack: Almonds
Dinner: Spicy black bean burger on an English muffin with mustard and kale, baby carrots, Butternut squash soup
Snack: Homemade gingerbread

Granted, this was the day after Christmas, when eating up holiday leftovers takes over an otherwise sensible diet. But I still learned a great deal. I realized that I need more calories overall -- I clocked in at only 1,268 for the day, well under the 2,200 allowance. While 2,200 sounds like too much to me, I should be eating at least a few hundred more than I did yesterday. Additionally, my salt consumption was off the charts! I chowed down on a whopping 4,404 mg of sodium, well past the recommended 2,300 mg for healthy, young adults. I also ate too many "empty" calories: 361, despite a limit of 266. (The empty calorie guideline refers to the number of allowable calories from added sugar and saturated fat that a person should consume in a day, according to Post.) On the other hand, I did well by eating at least half of my grain sources from whole grains. I ate only three teaspoons of my allotted six for oils and only 11 grams of saturated fat, despite a 24 gram limit.

And a feature called the "Daily Food Group Targets" let me know how well I did by volume: While I should have eaten seven ounces of grains, I only managed five. Meanwhile, I ate three cups of vegetables, which met their recommendation. I utterly failed to eat the two cups of fruits and three cups of dairy required of me, clocking in at zero cups on both counts. I also under-did it with protein, with only 4.5, rather than six ounces.

I can certainly be sanctimonious about how I eat, but the SuperTracker has knocked me down a peg. I need to watch my sodium and think about that empty calorie count before I fall prey to the alluring, holiday-themed baked goods presented after dinner. Tomorrow, I'll be struggling to eat more calories while lowering sodium and trying to incorporate some of the missing food groups. Until then, an introduction from Vilsak, himself: