My Life With the USDA

Wherein Jill E. Duffy attempts to eat everything in her daily recommendations

Truth be told, I don’t eat all the vegetables that I'm supposed to. I try, I do, but it just doesn’t always happen.

"Says who?" you ask? Who decides how many servings of carrots and kale I should eat in a day? Why, who else? The government!

I know as well as the next person that the U.S. government doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being 100 percent accurate ... or even factual, for that matter. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture certainly doesn’t have a spotless track record either. For generations, the department gave us such totally useless information as the “Five Food Groups,” which did nothing other than classify foods into groups. Bang up work, USDA! Then about 10 or 15 years ago, the department came up with the food pyramid, an overgeneralized, multicolored triangle of food whose main principle was “don’t eat too many fats and oils.” Genius strikes again!

Sarcasm aside, I recently looked into the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion new recommendation program and was rather impressed. It’s called MyPyramid ( It’s based on the food pyramid of yesterday but--in the interest of modern science--is personalized for individuals. The whole system, which is online, is completely free. Users set up an account and input information about their bodies; then the USDA creates a custom set of recommended daily allowances. The results are much richer in information than the food pyramid too, showing an individual’s recommendations by not only food group, but nutrient also.

The more I experiment with My Pyramid Tracker, the more I like it overall (though I have a growing list of usability issues I’d like to see addressed) and I very easily see how using the site could become part of my long-term diet and exercise program. The system has several advanced options for calculating additional statistics for consideration, such as physical fitness activities and total calories expended in a day, but the most interesting part is the daily intake analysis.

The idea of the intake analysis is to log all the food consumed in a single 24 hour period. Users (in this case, me) can look up foods they want to enter either by searching for them or by creating and saving a list of frequently consumed foods. My “frequently-eaten” list contains stuff like coffee, skim milk, cream substitute, low-fat and non-fat yogurts, kefir, bananas, whole wheat crackers (I’m hooked on Ak-Maak), lettuce, and a few other foods I tend to eat just about every day. The frequently-eaten list is helpful especially because a simple search for, say, “chicken” could turn up 30 or 40 more specific forms of chicken, like “chicken, roasted, with skin,” or “chicken, thigh meat, stewed,” or “chicken, breast, no fat added.” Some of the specifications can become overwhelming, but I found that after about two days of using the system, I felt comfortable deciding whether I wanted to search for exactly the correct corresponding food or just wing it and enter something that’s close enough. A great example is the day I ate chicken tikka masala with brown rice for lunch, which ended up being entered as stewed chicken breast, long grain brown rice, tomato sauce, and butter. The user must also specify the quantities of the foods consumed, typically selected via a drop-down menu for the given food.

Play around with it for about five minutes or so; it’s not too difficult to get the hang of. I also really enjoy generating different bar graphs, tables, and graph plots based on my progress. The beauty of My Pyramid Tracker, for me, is that it helped me approach diet and exercise from a completely different angle. Instead of thinking about what I shouldn’t eat in a day, I’ve started to consciously figure out ways to pack in all the foods I should eat, and once that starts to happen, I don’t even have room in my belly for much else.

After just three days of using My Pyramid, I realized that I was following all the rules I’ve heard for years and years about healthy eating without actually thinking about it, rules like “eat five servings of fruits and vegetables and day” and “white foods contain little nutrition (except skim milk, egg whites, and fish).” Also, all the testimonial mantras I’ve heard from people who have lost weight (“I never even felt hungry!”) were also miraculously coming true for me.

Take a look at this graph:

Food intake as of 5:00 p.m.

It shows what I’ve consumed as of 5:00 p.m. I can see what I have eaten so far and measure it against what else I need to eat in order to meet my daily recommendations. Now, I don’t need to reach the 100 percent mark on the nose for all the bar graphs, but I want to come pretty close—-and I especially want to make up for any food group that’s lacking more than others, in this case, meat and beans and grains. For the date and time shown in the graph, my milk intake was pretty close to where it needed to be, so I knew I didn’t have to worry too much about that. I was also pretty close for fruits, but I thought to myself, “Ah, if I’m hungry after dinner, I should just pop a handful of dried cranberries.” Knowing that I usually work in a serving or two of vegetables at dinner, I knew that that category would be covered by the end of the day. But I was way behind on my meats/beans and grains, as you can see from the graph, and with that in mind, I planned my dinner accordingly.

The biggest change for me has been this shift of emphasis. Instead of daydreaming about what I’d like to eat (which I do to myself mercilessly), I get through the bulk of my day as normal, then think about what I need to eat, what I should be eating. Of course, when humans put the right foods in their bodies, all the other cravings really do subside. No more 4:00 p.m. “cake crash” at work (remember Elaine on Seinfeld in that episode in which she ate J. Peterman’s antique cake…).

My Pyramid Tracker also lets me switch to a text chart that shows all the different nutrients I need against the recommendations for my body; for Day 3, the same day as the above graph, I was way under on my iron intake, which seemed logical given I had not eaten nearly enough meats or beans. With this knowledge and the power of my own brain--or the power of Google--I can find a few meal suggestions that will be both high in iron and emphasize meats/beans and grains, hence helping me meet all my requirements, rather than just the food groups.

Another reason My Pyramid seems to be working for me is that I am in front of a computer for most of the day. I don’t have to jot down on a piece of paper what I’ve eaten and enter it later. I can enter each food within an hour or two of consuming it.

Going into this project, I did already know, shamefully, that I eat too much sugar, usually in the form of chocolate and processed flour-based foods, like pastries. Since I’ve started, I’ve learned a few surprising facts, too. For one, although I tend to not eat very much meat, my body sees more than enough protein most days because of all the yogurt I eat. And all my anxiety about whether something is or is not “whole grain” (zounds, it’s confusing) is for naught since the FDA says I only need to make about half my grain intake whole grain, meaning I can still eat a good three or four ounces a day of spongy white baguette without feeling like a whole-grain failure.

If I were a nutritionist, I’m sure I could find fault with some of the data; even without any biological science degree, I have a sneaky suspicion that my daily “calories expended” is being reported much higher than what it truly is and that my protein intake could not possibly be double, or sometimes triple, what’s recommended.

But for what it is—-a government-sponsored project—-I truly do have to tip my hat to My Pyramid. I’m planning to stick with it for at least two weeks, and I’ll update on this blog once I’ve collected enough data to show my long-term progress.

The Backstory
If you’re curious about how I came to use My Pyramid Tracker, it’s due to the last three months of my life, which have been nutritionally speaking the weakest I’ve tracked in the past year.

In late 2005, I went on something of a health kick. I invested in a good bathroom scale that calculates weight, body fat, and water content for my body by age, height and gender--and I used it daily, recording my weight so I could track its fluctuations. I began to look more closely at what I ate, dedicating a week here and there to writing down all the foods I consumed and their caloric content. Occasionally, I kept track of my workout at the gym, noting how many reps and sets I could do of each activity, then trying to increase those measurements gradually. My weight consistently stayed within a healthy and fit range for more than a year, and I felt pretty much in control of my body.

While on the good streak, I had been looking up the nutritional value of foods I eat on a daily basis and reading about the health benefits of many so-called super foods, like oatmeal, almonds, and certain varieties of mushrooms that have been proven to—get this—not only prevent cancer, but shrink existing tumors. That’s freakin’ magical. At work, I had been snacking healthfully on baby carrots, celery sticks, apples, homemade trail mixes, cups of low-fat yogurt (I told you I eat a lot of yogurt), and small pieces of good quality chocolate, because even chocolate has health benefits. I focused on drinking a small glass of vino with dinner at least three nights a week to gain the heart-healthy benefits of red wine, and I strayed away from beer (except when on vacation in Belgium).

Then came Baking Day. Baking Day is an annual gathering of some women I know, in which we spend one full day making--and eating--holiday cookies. Baking Day was like my ides of March. I knew it was coming. I was warned about it, but nevertheless, it marked my fall.

Then, as the holidays drew nearer, I came down with a debilitating cold just as I left San Francisco to visit my family in New York. Most of the week around Christmas, I loafed on the couch, trying to muster up as much holiday spirit as possible by stuffing my face with sweet liqueurs and cookies shaped like snowmen, a sorry attempt at compensating for the rest of my dragging, sneezing, flu-infested disposition.

Then back to San Francisco where that mild case of the flu persisted a bit longer. I just couldn’t shake it. My fitness routine took a little hiatus.

Then, stress at work. I tried to alleviate it with 3 Musketeers bars from the vending machine, leftover holiday candies, paper cups of chalky instant hot chocolate from the break room, and a five-day cupcake binge (see “Cupcake in the City” in the January archives). The idea was to distract myself momentarily from the task at hand or to feel like I was rewarding myself for the work that I had completed.

At my day job as an editor, I was stretched thin trying to push out three issues of a magazine in a span of time that we would normally do two. I was tasked also with writing one of the cover stories, which is a job I take great pride in but requires a good deal of chocolate consumption on my part to complete with any sanity. Then, a week-long conference rolled around, meaning I spent five days eating out for business lunches and dinners, a schedule broken up only by intense writing and coffee and cookies in the press room.

Outside, darkness fell sometimes as early as 4:45. And it rained. Sometimes incessantly. So much so that I barely left the office for my usual 60-minute walk. The loss of control over my health was getting to be a bit ridiculous.

Not long ago, the last issue went to press, the conference ended, and my life heaved itself back into a more flexible routine. The weather warmed dramatically, and Daylight Saving Time met its untimely demise, coming three weeks earlier than usual this year. My mood and my energy level in the late afternoons skyrocketed, and I felt re-inspired to examine my health.

Cooking Light magazine, a pillar of my good eating habits, occasionally, and for various reasons encourages readers to visit the USDA's web site, so that’s where my life with My Pyramid Tracker really began. It’s a suggestion I have overlooked time and time again because, quite frankly, I thought I didn’t have anything to gain from looking at a big multicolored triangle that tells me I eat too much fat.

But for some spur-of-the-moment reason, I was able to look past its long and pitiable history of oversimplified food recommendations after just a few minutes working with My Pyramid Tracker. Check out more of the tables and graphs below that show examples of how the system works for my particular body and eating habits. I hope you give it a shot, too.

(Disclaimer: Jill E Duffy does not have any educational degree or special training in health, nutrition, physiology, biology, or any other science. The statistics reported reflect her personal data as outputted by the USDA’s My Pyramid Tracker program. For added context, the charts and graphs contained herein reflect the output for a female who is 5’8”, between 25 and 30 years old, and weighs in the 140-145 lbs. range.)

Jill E Duffy’s top 5 nutrient intake values for first three days using My Pyramid

Day 1

Day 2