Calo­rie coun­ters go­ing global

Hus­band-and-wife team Peter Men­zel and Faith D’Aluisio com­pare caloric in­take in 30 coun­tries.

Los Angeles Times - - Health - Jeannine Stein

If we are what we eat, then what we con­sume on any given day de­fines not only our hunger, but also our food pref­er­ences, lo­ca­tion, so­cial class, fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion and cul­ture.

This is the premise of “What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Di­ets,” a new book by hus­ban­dand-wife team Peter Men­zel and Faith D’Aluisio that doc­u­ments the meals of 80 peo­ple in 30 coun­tries on an or­di­nary day.

The en­gag­ing mini-pro­files are or­ga­nized ac­cord­ing to calo­ries con­sumed, from least (a Kenyan Maa­sai herder who ate 800 calo-

ries) to most (an English mother of three who binged on 12,300 calo­ries). Though they aren’t meant to rep­re­sent av­er­age daily in­take, there’s an un­de­ni­able fas­ci­na­tion in dis­cov­er­ing that a model con­sumed 2,400 calo­ries (in­clud­ing brown rice veg­e­tar­ian sushi, tuna salad and a glass of white wine), and that a Ja­panese Sumo wrestler and a Brazil­ian grand­mother ate nearly the same num­ber of calo­ries (3,500 and 3,400, re­spec­tively).

The text that ac­com­pa­nies the riv­et­ing por­traits pro­vides en­light­en­ing con­text about each per­son’s so­ci­ety and mores, di­etary habits and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. That ex­plains why a 5-foot-6 Ti­betan yak herder can eat 5,600 calo­ries in a day and weigh only 135 pounds.

The cof­fee-ta­ble book also re­veals the de­gree to which pro­cessed foods are be­com­ing a greater part of the global diet, at times edg­ing out in­dige­nous cuisines and fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles. A fore­word by nutrition ex­pert Mar­ion Nes­tle and es­says by var­i­ous writ­ers on cook­ing, por­tion size and the im­por­tance of move­ment round out the vol­ume.

Napa-based Men­zel and D’Aluisio (he’s a pho­tog­ra­pher, she’s a for­mer tele­vi­sion news pro­ducer) are no strangers to doc­u­ment­ing what peo­ple con­sume, hav­ing writ­ten “Hun­gry Planet: What the World Eats,” a look at how fam­i­lies dine to­gether, and “Man Eat­ing Bugs: The Art and Sci­ence of Eat­ing In­sects.” The pro­files are or­ga­nized by how many calo­ries a per­son con­sumed that par­tic­u­lar day. Why did you de­cide to ar­range the book this way?

D’Aluisio: The first book dealt with more the eco­nom­ics of food, and we didn’t look at nutrition. In this book we’ve re­ally taken the calo­rie as a jump­ing-off point. It’s not a great met­ric, but if you’re com­par­ing ev­ery­one on the same met­ric, it gets you into a pretty in­ter­est­ing ball game. You’re com­par­ing ev­ery­one on the same scale.

Men­zel: The peo­ple who were pro­filed re­al­ize it’s for

the greater good, and some­one who isn’t a celebrity or isn’t used to be­ing pho­tographed or in­ter­viewed re­al­izes, maybe some­body can learn some­thing from me. The whole point of the book is that by com­par­ing our own life­style to oth­ers around the world, we learn by good and bad ex­am­ples. From the time you worked on “Hun­gry Planet” to this book, did you no­tice peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas and non-Western coun­tries eat­ing more pro­cessed foods?

D’Aluisio: Yes, you’re see­ing more and more of it, cer­tainly in places where peo­ple are bet­ter off eco­nom­i­cally. It’s def­i­nitely more ubiq­ui­tous. I’m talk­ing about highly pro­cessed foods that have an in­gre­di­ent list as long as your arm.

You cer­tainly see it in places like China. And in some coun­tries, such as In­dia and China, they’re mak­ing their own pro­cessed foods and they have their own lo­cal fast foods. Also, KFC is ev­ery­where, al­though it changes depend­ing on the lo­cal mores and cul­ture. You pro­filed a young In­dian man named Shashi Chan­dra Kanth who works as an AOL call cen­ter op­er­a­tor. It was strik­ing how his 3,000 calo­ries that day in­cluded typ­i­cal In­dian fare such as lentil curry and cha­p­ati as well as three candy bars, Trop­i­cana Twis­ter fruit drinks and chips. Is he aware of how much pro­cessed foods he eats — and if so, does he care?

D’Aluisio: Part of it is that he’s a young guy who knows a lot about Amer­i­can cul­ture. If you looked at the diet of [In­dian rick­shaw driver] Munna Kailash, he ate com­pletely dif­fer­ently from Shashi, and more tra­di­tion­ally. [Kailash’s 2,200-calo­rie day in­cluded potato curry with tomato, yel­low lentils, stir-fried okra and fresh lime juice, with no junk foods.] But Shashi is young and in a dif­fer­ent so­cioe­co­nomic group. His mother even came and cooked for him and wanted him to bring his lunch from home. He was aware of his diet, but not apolo­getic. The con­trast be­tween so many Amer­i­can foods and foods in other coun­tries was pretty as­tound­ing. Coal miner Todd Kin­cer ate Pop-Tarts, Ham­burger Helper, a bologna sandwich on white bread and a Ding Dong, while Chi­nese cit­rus grower Lan Gui­hua had egg­plant and green beans, stir-fried sweet potato leaves and bot­tle gourd soup. It seems so many Amer­i­can meals lacked sub­stan­tial amounts of fruits and veg­eta­bles.

D’Aluisio: They know they’re eat­ing badly, but do they know they could eat bet­ter? One man I talked to was di­a­betic and try­ing to lose weight, and wanted to eat more veg­eta­bles. But he said they were so ex­pen­sive, and that was such a poignant moment for me.

It seems cheap to eat fast food in this coun­try, since some things are only a dol­lar. But if you cooked up a huge pot of pasta, that could feed you for longer. I think a lot of times peo­ple aren’t think­ing ahead when they buy their food. As calo­rie counts went up, weight didn’t al­ways fol­low. For ex­am­ple, Maria Ermelinda Ayme Sichi­galo, an Ecuado­ran moun­tain farmer, ate 3,800 calo­ries in one day but is 5 feet 3 and 119 pounds. And Span­ish bull­fighter Os­car Hi­gares con­sumed 4,200 calo­ries in one day, and he’s 6 feet 2 and weighs 174 pounds. The com­mon­al­ity, of course, is move­ment — Sichi­galo walks up and down moun­tains all day, and Hi­gares has a rig­or­ous train­ing sched­ule. What did you want read­ers to learn from this?

Men­zel: The main thing I want peo­ple to take away from this book is that food is fuel. Put more in than you burn and your body is go­ing to start stor­ing it, and you’re not go­ing to be happy with the stor­age. Peo­ple don’t get fat overnight, and you don’t lose weight overnight. You have to stick with some­thing. You’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to food. Were there any di­etary habits that sur­prised you this time around?

Men­zel: Mil­lie Mi­tra in In­dia. It took me a long time to find some­one who was a prac­ti­tioner of shivambu, which is drink­ing your own urine for health rea­sons. It’s like peo­ple who be­lieve in crys­tals — there’s no ba­sis in sci­ence, but it’s part of her health reg­i­men, like ve­g­an­ism. Her fam­ily went along with it for a lit­tle while but they didn’t stick with it. Have your own di­etary habits changed since writ­ing the book? You con­fessed to a small weight gain due to be­ing more seden­tary while fin­ish­ing the book.

Men­zel: It has changed grad­u­ally. We never re­ally em­braced Ham­burger Helper or Won­der Bread, but we’ve be­come much more cog­nizant of look­ing at la­bels. We try to stay away from high fruc­tose corn syrup. We don’t ex­pect peo­ple to be calo­rie coun­ters, but any­one who has is­sues with food and nutrition should do what we did for a week, and write down what you eat and look at the num­bers.

Peter Men­zel

DI­ETS: The 80 sub­jects ate from 800 calo­ries to more than 12,000 calo­ries on a typ­i­cal day.

Peter Men­zel

CHINA: Ac­ro­bat Cao Xiaoli hov­ers above her day’s worth of food in Shang­hai.


Peter Men­zel

Camel bro­ker Saleh Ab­dul Fad­lal­lah with his day’s worth of food at the Birqash Camel Mar­ket out­side Cairo.

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