Big Brother Is Now Your Diet Coach

Should the government be watching what you eat?


A new federal effort called SuperTracker may sound like a program to keep extremely close tabs on suspected terrorists or other enemies of the state, but it isn't—unless those enemies also happen to be healthy-minded consumers intent on dropping a few pounds.

A product of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP ), SuperTracker is an online tool located at choosemyplate.gov that helps users set and maintain dietary goals. Create a user profile at the site, and you can track the calories you consume each day, record your daily physical activities, set weight management goals, and see how close you come to eating the USDA's recommended daily allowance of dark green vegetables. SuperTracker, an expanded version of previous tools called the MyPyramid Tracker and the MyPyramid Menu Planner, debuted in December 2011. In its first month, it reportedly attracted more than 700,000 registered users. Any day now, then, we should expect to see either the end of the obesity epidemic or SuperDuperTracker, an even more intrusive and hands-on government effort to engineer our behavior. If you're a betting man, bet on the latter.

Indeed, the history of government dietary advice is a history of failure and escalation. It started in 1894, when Congress funded research efforts by W.O. Atwater, a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University, to determine the nutritive value and costs of various foods. At the time, a typical working man required approximately 3,500 calories and .28 lbs. of protein a day to fuel his efforts according to Atwater's calculations, and the average American family had only around $250 a year to devote to food. Food scarcity wasn't necessarily a problem—Atwater spent two pages in his final report noting how much "valuable food" people were "throwing away"—but the project's primary goal was to help consumers understand how to obtain the most nutrition for their dollar. We were a hungry nation back then.

After Atwater's pioneering efforts, a steady stream of government pamphlets and posters urged America to fuel itself more strategically, but ultimately, the country's poor eating habits persisted. In 1941, alarmed at the fact that U.S. Army officials had found that approximately one in 10 draft inductees were unfit for service due to disabilities directly or indirectly related to nutrition, President Roosevelt organized the National Nutrition Conference for Defense. This conference produced the conceit of "Recommended Daily Allowances," the specific number of calories one should consume each day, along with daily targets for nine essential nutrients too. Next came the National Wartime Nutrition Guide and its conceit of the Basic 7 food groups.

Like Atwater's 1894 report, the National Wartime Nutrition Guide was aimed at people who had little to eat—its purpose was to show how to "maintain good nutrition under rationing." In the decades that followed World War II, however, it was America's growing affluence rather than the USDA's nutritional advice that made an impact on America's diet. In 1940, families spent approximately 20.7 percent of their income on food. By 1980, that number had dropped to 13.2 percent. The daily number of calories the average American consumed was rising, and malnutrition and the diseases associated with it were no longer a widespread problem.

Instead, obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and tooth decay had emerged as the new health scourges to conquer. In the pages of The New York Times, the head of the USDA's Human Nutrition Center warned that "killer diseases in epidemic proportion" were afflicting America, and that only "only far-reaching public health measures [could] control the contagion." The contagion, of course, was America's diet, and its abundance of salt, fat, sugar, cholesterol, and alcohol. Clearly, a new generation of charts, publications, and symbols were in order.

In 1980, the USDA published Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines, which used a variety of hideous typefaces to convince America to eat a variety of nutritious foods while avoiding butter, cream, hydrogenated margarine, candy, soft drinks, and potato chips. To clarify such concepts, it followed up with a seemingly endless buffet of complementary volumes: Ideas for Better Eating, Dietary Guidelines and Your Diet, Dietary Guidelines and Your Diet: Home Economics Teacher's Guide, Food Facts for Older Adults, etc.

But apparently America was so busy eating it had no time to read. While the percentage of obese Americans held steady at around 13 to 14 percent throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the obesity rate rose 8 percent during the 1980s. In response, the USDA decided it needed to communicate its nutritional advice in a simpler fashion. And thus 1992 food pyramid, which communicated even more explicitly than previous efforts the mandate to eat fats, oils, and sweets "sparingly" while making grains and other carbohydrates the foundation of one's diet.

Even when the USDA was still trying to convey its message through the relatively complex of booklets like Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines, medical experts worried that its advice was too prescriptive and generic to address the dietary needs and desires of a diverse nation. "The whole population should not be treated as if it were at risk of falling prey to diet-related diseases," Dr. Phillip White, head of the American Medical Association's Council on Food and Nutrition, told The New York Times in 1980.

The food pyramid took the USDA's one-size-fits-all approach and made it even more all-encompassing. The correct, government-approved way to maintain a healthy weight and plaque-free arteries, it suggested, was to eat precisely 6 to 11 servings of bread, rice, and pasta; three to five servings of vegetables; 2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, or fish, etc. But if the food pyramid was the USDA's most visually emphatic piece of iconography yet, it was no more effective than previous efforts. Obesity rates continued to climb throughout the 1990s, and low-carb diet evangelists like Dr. Robert Atkins argued that the USDA's dietary advice—with its emphasis on carbs and its prohibitions against fat—was actually contributing to the epidemic.

All of which simply made the USDA more determined than ever to exert its will upon the increasingly flabby body politic. In a 1999 USDA publication entitled America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, the agency reported that its mandate had shifted over time "from simply providing knowledge to allow consumers to make informed decisions about healthy eating to actually motivating them to bring about behavior change."

That sentiment would ultimately find expression in the USDA's MyPyramid.gov website, which in 2011 was rebranded as Choosemyplate.gov, in part, apparently, because user interest in MyPyramid.gov was waning, with traffic dropping from 3.5 billion hits in 2009 to 1.6 billion in 2010. In addition to retiring its food pyramid icon (which had received a facelift in 2005) in favor of a new, simpler image of a plate, the USDA also substantially improved the functionality of its calorie-counting application, aka SuperTracker. But even though SuperTracker is much less clunky than its predecessor, it's still pretty clunky compared to private-sector apps like Fitday and MyFoodDiary, to name just a couple—and it's clunky in a telling way.

Specifically, it doesn't let you create nutritional profiles for food items that aren't included in its database of 8,000 items. Reportedly, this database is what sets SuperTracker apart from its competition because the USDA actually analyzed the nutritional content of all the foods included in it instead of relying upon information supplied by food manufacturers. If a food you eat is missing from the SuperTracker database, or if SuperTracker's various definitions of, say, a hamburger, don't quite match the hamburger you plan to eat that night, there's no easy way to enter this information into the program. While it promises personalization and customizability (it's your plate, and you're choosing it!), it's actually a pretty inflexible tool that prefers to keep control in its hands rather than the user's.

But even if SuperTracker doesn't seem quite as powerful or easy to use as some of its competitors, it does offer functionality no private-sector calorie-counting program can match: It's the only one that helps normalize the idea that the government should be monitoring your eating habits and functioning as your weight-loss coach. In this respect, SuperTracker and the hundred-plus years of USDA bulletins, posters, pamphlets, and booklets that preceded it—which have seemingly had so little impact on the nation's eating habits—have nonetheless been exceedingly effective. Indeed, when the government offers us cash bonuses to eat our veggies, it doesn't seem that unusual. When the government sets up video surveillance systems in school cafeterias to figure out who's going back for seconds on the cake, it doesn't seem that unusual. When the USDA Food and Nutrition Service has expanded its various food distribution programs so dramatically in the last few years that it now serves 77.5 million people each day—or nearly three times as many as McDonald's—it doesn't seem that unusual. Of course it's the government's natural role to be so intimately involved in offering us dietary advice, planning our dinner menus, controlling what we eat. It's been that way for years.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.