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Big Brother Is Now Your Diet Coach

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.

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