Eating well on Independence Day

Happy 4th of July. I thought I’d share an interesting website that has nothing to do with government transparency but is about good use of government data. The USDA maintains a big database of nutrition facts about foods. You can download the database and build applications based on it, like a menu planner. This is something I’ve been thinking about in the back of my head for a while since after getting into the whole Michael Pollan food mind-set I’ve wondered whether one can make a healthy diet just by balancing various food groups (as I try to do with limited success), or whether (contra Pollan’s overall message, though maybe not in the details) it would be useful to start adding up the numbers of various nutrients to see how my meals match up with recommended values. How should I know, for instance, if I’ve managed to exclude an important vitamin in my particular selection of foods that I eat week after week, right?

The database is great itself, but the cooler website is MyPyramid Menu Planner ( (also out of the USDA). You can enter a typical daily roster of what you eat (with a nice sound effect) and it will tell you how it stacks up for a recommended diet for your age (or for me, how to gain weight to a recommended amount for my age). It feels a little over-simplified, but the simplicity keeps me on the site. I find, not surprisingly, that I probably eat about half of the recommended calories and clearly not enough grain or fruit. Well, I knew this in the abstract, but quantifying it helps direct me to fixing the problem.

I’m sure there are other websites that do similar things, but it’s nice to find a case where the government has both published a comprehensive (well structured, well documented) database and has also built a really nice interface for the data. And on a topic that is really very important to daily life, too.

And with that, I think I will take the rest of the weekend off from civics!

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