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Kentucky Fried Chicken, a hot fudge sundae, and stir-fried eggplant with a rice roll. Deep-fried pastries, white rice, fried red snapper, potato chips and candy bars. Burger King chicken fries, Taco Bell tacos, Betty Crocker fruit snacks, Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper.
Those are just three of the daily diet tallies in the new book “What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets,” where photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Alusio documented 80 world citizens alongside all of the food they would eat on that particular day. The photos are accompanied by essays on food by Marion Nestle, PhD, Michael Pollan and others. (Images from the book are now on exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.)
It's compelling, strangely addictive, and often surprising stuff -- that fast-food-heavy third tally, for example, adds up to just 1900 calories, for a 21-year-old Mall of America employee. In contrast, a priest in Rome, Italy puts away 4,000 calories worth of artisanally-prepared pasta, beef fillet and grilled eggplant. And it's that kind of juxtaposition that's got me thinking, because on the surface, you'd expect this to be yet another "we've lost touch with the food supply" lesson, contrasting a Midwestern truck driver's 5,400 calorie road food with a Maasai woman's meager 800-calorie cornmeal porridge ration. And "the pictures do give a glimpse into how both hunger and excess coexist on the planet," as Tara Parker-Pope notes in her New York Times Well column.
But I admit to being a little disappointed by the focus on calorie counts (the book even arranges the 80 eaters in order according to their caloric intake) when eating well is about so much more. When I interviewed moms in hungry American households for this article, I learned that food insecurity isn't just about whether you'll have enough food, it's also about whether you have access to nutritious food, or have to make do with nutritionally empty meals. "I often hear things like, 'Those people can't be hungry -- they're fat!'" Janet Poppendieck, Ph.D., author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America told me. "But the least healthy, most obesity-inducing calories in our society are often the cheapest."
And of course, it's good body image 101 that you don't need to count calories to take care of your body -- in fact, obsessing over calories tends to be a sign that you need to be nicer to yourself. Calories are an abstract concept, after all -- they aren't the food on your plate and they can't assign value to you or your body. Which isn't to say that Menzel and D'Alusio are guilty of assigning a value to Noolkisaruni Tarakuai, the 800-calorie Maasaai woman, or Jill McTighe, the British binge eater who ends the book with her 12,300-calorie day. But despite Menzel's claim to the Times that "we present information to people rather than drawing conclusions," there's something calculated and deliberate feeling about that choice of bookends. It's obvious that you're supposed to empathize with Tarakuai, nobly struggling to feed her family. Binge eaters inspire more complicated feelings.
And the whole problem with reducing what we eat to numbers -- whether it's calories, carb grams, or pounds on the scale -- is that you neatly skip over taste, emotions, accessibility and a million other factors that inform each and every food decision we make. Nevertheless, "What I Eat" puts a lot of important issues on the table -- and serves as a stark reminder that, for better or worse, not everybody eats like you.