Book Review: What I Eat by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

book review what I eatPeter Menzel/CC BY 1.0

Most of us have no idea how much food we eat, let alone how many calories we consume in any given day. If you were to pay a visit to a dietician or nutritionist say, looking for advice on losing weight, or eating a healthier diet, chances are they would tell you to start a food diary. That means making note of everything you put in your mouth, including the little chocolate someone offered you or a slice of deli meat you stole from the fridge.

Writer Faith D'Aluisio and photographer Peter Menzel have provided a sort of pictoral food diary from 80 people throughout 30 countries. The book is a kind of snapshot of what these 80 people ate in the course of one day, providing a fascinating view of what fuels us. They are quick to point out that this is not necessarily what is consumed every day, just this particular day. The profiles are given from smallest caloric intake to largest, and the two women who bookend this are extremes: one has an intake of 800 calories, the other 12,300, neither of which is sustainable for any kind of healthy life.

Initially I found the book is fascinating in a sort of voyeuristic way. These 80 people have let the authors into their lives and have allowed themselves to be photographed with their daily intake laid out in front of them. Not only that, their stories are told, and they give up really personal information like their weight. Ouch. But ultimately, I found this book fascinating because it actually confounds some stereotypes, both cultural and social.

Certainly in the first part of the book the people with the lowest caloric intake aren't a big surprise. The Maasai cow herder clocks in at the lowest at 800 calories consumed. Having been to Kenya and seen how these people live in the Rift Valley and eaten the ugali that is the staple there (they also profile a tea plucker from Kericho, where I stayed, 3100 calories), that doesn't surprise at all, as well as the kid in Bangladesh who gets 1400 calories, but who would have expected a yak herder in Tibet to consume 5600 calories?

There certainly are some people here who eat junk food, but not really as much as you might expect, although the majority of people profiled could have used more vegetables in their diet. What impressed me was the amount of calories consumed throughout the world from bread. In some form or another, bread is consumed by pretty much everyone in this book and some people eat an enormous amount of it. A homemaker from Yemen eats four or five different types of bread during a day, while a rabbi in Israel eats bread at lunch, and pita for a snack, as well as side for his pasta dinner. A young baker in Germany ate bread for breakfast, for lunch and then topped off with more than a pound of pasta for dinner. The other that struck me was how the encroachment of western foods, often junk food, into traditional diets.

Of course, I looked for myself here, as I suspect all readers will do, but I'm not really sure that is possible. In fact, people ate an astonishing variety of foods and even the people closest to my particular walk of life eat very differently.

In addition to the profiles there is a series of informative essays by a variety of authors on different aspects of food throughout the book, and also an introduction by Marion Nestle.

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