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Q&A: The authors of ‘What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets’

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 husband-and-wife team Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio that documents the meals of 80 people in 30 countries on an ordinary day.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

jeannine.stein@latimes.com


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