THE HOOK: A free, interactive Web site that helps you meet individualized nutrition target=s.
THE DIET: The oft-maligned USDA Food Pyramid.
NO. 1 LESSON LEARNED: The more diet data you record, the more you'll learn.
I wanted to finish with something more self-guided, and the Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid.gov site exceeded my expectations with three interactive tools that, used together, come close to being a free nutritionist. The tools use age, weight, height, and activity levels to create a daily caloric target=, then tell you how much you should eat from each of the five main food groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat and beans). Input what you've eaten and how much you've exercised, and graphs show where you are relative to your target=s.
Problem is, I don't trust all of the target=s. The USDA has to please a lot of people: medical associations, government panels, even farm lobbies. The calorie numbers seemed about right, but other food recommendations were suspect. I can't see how anyone who didn't have to answer to dairy farmers would recommend three or more cups of milk per day. (All it took was a few minutes with me in an enclosed space during this diet to understand that this was bad for my system.)
The site does one important thing very well, however: It forces you to pay attention to everything you eat. You realize quickly how hard it is to get in sufficient produce and how quickly calories, fats, sodium, and cholesterol add up. This site would no doubt be an improvement for some. But by this point the generalized guidelines felt like a step backwards.