I received a link from one of my coworkers at our hospital the other day encouraging me to try Super Tracker, an online food and activity tracking program. I wasn't expecting much after seeing that it was created by the USDA and part of ChooseMyPlate.gov, but I decided to try it out anyway.
My first entry was breakfast. I started by entering "1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese," and as expected the calories came in at a little over 400 and saturated fat at 20 grams. But before I could enter my 1/2 cup of blackberries, I realized that 259 of my calories, or 60%, had been marked as "empty calories." This confused me. Empty calories? To me, that phrase conjures up images of soda, chips, cookies, etc. Ricotta cheese -- rich in protein, healthy fat, CLA, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, and other micronutrients but very low in carbs -- contains more than 250 empty calories?
Then I noticed an asterisk next to "Empty Calories" and its definition below:
"Calories from food components such as added sugars and solid fats that provide little nutritional value. Empty Calories are part of Total Calories."
Super Tracker's saturated fat limit for the day is 22 grams, so at least I had a couple of grams to spare for the rest of the day. But the idea that a cup of ricotta cheese is classified as having any empty calories, much less 60%, is pretty disturbing. This tracker was designed for educating the public about healthy eating strategies as part of ChooseMyPlate, and it's teaching people that consuming any meal containing more than 8 grams of saturated fat is equivalent to eating junk.
I decided to try inputting a different meal. 1 cup of raisin bran with 1 cup skim milk and 16 oz orange juice provides 500 calories, only 44 of which are classified as "empty" -- the 3 tsp of added sugar in the cereal. Super Tracker doesn't specify carbohydrate amounts, but I estimate this meal has well over 100 grams of carbs and very little fat to modulate the inevitable blood sugar spike and insulin surge. In the "Fruits" section at the top, 16 oz of orange juice is considered "OK," despite the fact that all of its calories come from sugar and a good portion from fructose.
Now, I understand that some of you may disagree that consuming dairy is healthy, but I think it's largely a matter of personal tolerance. I eat a lot of it and stay slim and energetic with no GI problems, so for me it's a staple food. Your mileage may vary, as they say. Regardless, it shouldn't be relegated to "empty calorie" status.
While it's great to see a lot of low-carb, high-fat, whole-food proponents trying to counter the low-fat
message, it's discouraging to learn that the USDA is continuing to drive home the idea that a high-sugar breakfast is preferable to one relatively high in saturated fat. Never mind that saturated fatty acids increase satiety, are vital for cell membrane structure and hormone synthesis, protect our liver and other organs, and provide many other health benefits -- and that research has exonerated them as a factor in heart disease for most people.The creators of ChooseMyPlate are determined to make sure that folks choose a "healthy," low-fat breakfast and avoid "empty calories" in foods like cheese, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows, etc. We need to continue our efforts to dispel this misinformation, and I'm grateful to all who are willing to do so.
Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE