The nutritionist behind USDA’s online food and physical activity tracker

July 9, 2013

Millions of Americans want to eat healthier, lose weight and exercise more frequently, but it’s not easy.

Sarah A. Chang, a nutritionist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has helped come up with an innovative way to assist those struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle – the SuperTracker food and exercise online application that provides customized nutrition guidance to help people make smarter choices.

“It’s completely about empowering people and making an overall healthy lifestyle easier,” said Chang.

The web-based SuperTracker’s features include a food tracker, a physical activity tracker, a weight manager and a Food-A-Pedia containing about 9,000 items that have been analyzed by the USDA for nutritional content.

Individuals interested in learning about nutrients in food or the calorie-burning levels of various forms of exercise can personalize their experience at the SuperTracker site by setting goals for themselves and seeing how they stack up against the government’s dietary and physical activity guidelines.

(Kelly Kirschner/The Partnership for Public Service)

Personalized nutrition and physical activity might include, for example, setting a goal for weight loss or increasing the amount of vegetables consumed each week. SuperTracker will provide the user with tips and recommendations for meeting those goals.

Customization increases the appeal of the tracker, according to Chang, and helps with individual choices. For example, someone at the supermarket can tap into the website to compare two foods and then reach for the healthier option. Users also can gauge their progress from simple charts or comprehensive reports produced for them, based on what they enter about their daily food and activity choices.

Every day since the launch of SuperTracker in December 2011, between 2,000 and 11,000 people have signed up to take advantage of virtual coaching and keep track of their physical activity, according to Chang. The number of registered users so far has topped 2.5 million.

“My favorite thing is when I hear back from users that they lost weight or are feeling more motivated,” Chang said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The information in the application builds on MyPlate, an icon introduced in 2011 by USDA that provides nutrition guidance using a color-coded plate to help people eat the recommended daily amounts of the five building blocks of a healthy diet—fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein.

When Chang was hired, the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion had three different interactive tools that were “in desperate need of updating,” said Jackie Haven, director of the Nutrition Marketing and Communication Division.

“Our plan was to take the best features from the three tools and make one super tool with today’s technology, which is what took place.”

To help with that transformation, Chang became well-versed in the technology, communicating with programmers, trouble-shooting glitches and identifying near-term and future needs to help a team of programming and design experts build the free application.

Haven said nutritionists’ training ordinarily does not include “learning how to build IT systems and influence behavior.”

“She’s had to do things above and beyond what she’s learned,” said Haven. “There’s no one better at this in the universe. She’s just awesome.”

Consumers have numerous calorie-counting and activity tracking apps available to them, but the SuperTracker is the only one that “perfectly” reflects the most up-to-date science and federal policy on dietary and physical activity guidelines, Haven said. There is no SuperTracker mobile app, but Chang said USDA is working on it.

Chang said she has always loved food and cooking. “I grew up in the South and have an Italian grandmother. Food was always a big deal in our family,” she said.

In middle school, Chang partnered with a food-service worker and recruited other students to start a nutrition club to promote healthy eating around the school and her town. The members visited the local elementary school to promote good eating. Chang even made up a song and dance about fruits and vegetables that the club performed for the students.

While studying food and nutrition in college, Chang decided she wanted her life’s work to involve teaching others about healthful eating. “Knowing where food comes from and how the body uses it is empowering,” she said. “Sharing that feeling with others has become my major purpose.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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