From culture to religion, social status to political leanings, a lot can be learned from what’s on a plate. In What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets, photographer Peter Menzel and his wife, writer Faith D’Aluisio, take a fascinating look at diets of people around the world.

Menzel and D’Aluisio have been doing global cultural projects for over twenty years. While they were collaborating on the James Beard award winning Hungry Planet: What The World Eats, Menzel thought it would be interesting to also look at individual diets. Menzel and D’Aluisio spent four years documenting foods across the globe; they went to 30 countries and recorded what a typical diet might be for 80 people including athletes, farmers, taxi drivers and other professions. “Too many of us fail to negotiate the complex calculus of calories in motion, so we looked at people that really had it under control and didn’t have it under control and everybody else in between,” said Menzel.

 

The book is organized into sections according to caloric intake, ranging from lowest to highest. On the lower end of the spectrum, Maasai herder Noolkisaruni Tarakuai consumed 800 calories on this particular day from ugali (a corn porridge), a banana, tea, some milk and a bit of sugar.

D’Aluisio emphasizes that many diets aren’t static--for example, in situations like Taarakuai’s, environmental factors contributed to what was consumed. “For the Maasai herder, she was eating 800 calories and that was what we ended up calculating for her typical day’s worth during drought. If we had covered her during the week that they had killed a goat or a cow then there would have been more meat, more calories, and that number would have been higher.”

Finance can also influence caloric intake, as one of the book’s participants, a factory seamstress in Bangladesh, demonstrated. Her caloric intake decreased towards the end of the month before her pay from the factory came. Psychological factors may also play a role in the amount of calories consumed. At the other end of the caloric extreme, the final person profiled in the book was a binge eater. On the day she was documented, she had eaten 12,300 calories. While that was representative of that day, it might not accurately reflect all the other days of the year. D’Aluisio says documenting was the same for everyone included in the book, “Their calorie counts are a direct reflection of the circumstances and moment in time when we covered them.”

Rick Bumgardener (pictured above) came from a deep fried culture; his favorite snack was an entire jar of mayonnaise with some Saltine crackers. He was in the process of trying to lose enough weight to qualify for weight loss surgery when he was photographed with the 1,600 calories he had ingested that day. “It’s really hard for these pictures to live on their own. They really need the context of the stories,” explains D’Aluisio.

“That picture is interesting to me because people look at that and then they look at him and they think, Well, how could he have gotten to that size on that? but again it goes back to why we didn’t do averages,” she says. “If we had done what he would normally eat, then it would make perfect sense. What the picture does, and what the story does, is different. It really makes you read the story because you’re looking at him and you’re looking at that food and there’s a disconnect because that body did not get that way on that number of calories, this is his current weight-loss diet.”

Both José Ángel Galaviz Carrillo (on left) and Louie Soto (on right) are Native American Pima Indians. Although they had a similar daily caloric intake (Galaviz Carrillo’s was 2,900 and Soto’s was 2,700), their weight and the types of foods they consumed were significantly different. One thing Menzel said he found interesting, “We discovered a sort of epigenetic lesson between the Pima in Arizona and the Pima in Mexico, where the one in Arizona was largely overweight and also had some alcohol-related problems.”

“When he [Soto] changed his diet and Faith asked him if he was able to stick to it and eat more vegetables and fruits, he said his family had tried but it was more expensive so he went back to what he called 'regular' food,” says Menzel. “But then when you go to Mexico and he’s [Galaviz Carrillo] eating as many calories but it’s real food and he’s working physically hard, so his community didn’t have the high rate of diabetes and chronic diseases related to diet that Pimas in Arizona had.”

Menzel and D’Aluisio still keep in touch with many of the individuals included in the book. Some of them have changed their diets and D’Aluisio says both her and Menzel’s diets have changed as well--in some fun ways, with the inclusion of more herbs and spices--but she says they’ve also reduced their intake of packaged foods. “Our goal was to raise awareness so that people who are fortunate enough to make choices about their diet will hopefully make better and healthier choices for themselves and ultimately everyone else on the planet,” adds Menzel.

Image Credits: All images used with permission, by Peter Menzel.