I love photo essays that capture and compare a parallel scenario in multiple cultures. In the brilliant photo essay chronicled in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, thirty families from around the world are profiled in their home with a week’s worth of groceries.
Even if you just peruse the photos, you quickly see a number of trends.
The most obvious to me was that in the richer industrialized countries people ate more processed, pre-packaged food: from Lay’s potato chips and Corn Flakes to McDonald’s. In developing countries, many families ate more food right from the earth – beans, greens and and other naturally colorful foods.
I also noticed that the American family ate the least fruits and vegetables (in fact, barely any), while the families in India, Bhutan and Guatemala had rainbow displays of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — most, if not all, locally grown.
The Australian family seemed to love their meat, while in Chad, there was no meat (that I could see anyhow). The Japanese family was the most enthusiastic about seafood, while the Italians showed their love of bread and the Mexican family proudly stood by a large display of soda.
The American family and a Sudanese family seemed to me to have the most concerning diets, but for entirely different reasons. The American family ate nearly all processed food (if you can even call some of the items food) and almost no fresh fruits and vegetables. Clearly, this American family is getting enough calories, but are they getting enough nutrition? Of course, not all Americans share this same high-fat, high-sugar diet, but unfortunately many do: about 71 percent of Americans are overweight, while nearly ten percent of our population has diabetes.
While so many Americans are obese and simultaneously malnourished (from not getting the proper nutrients), some families photographed may have the opposite issue with undernourishment. The Sudanese family living at a refugee camp in Eastern Chad gets supplemental food from International Aid agencies. Even though their week of food looks meager, the Aboubakar family appears to be healthy, albeit slight in build.
In the same photo mentioned above, notice what beautiful teeth the 16 year old boy, Abdel, is showing off with his gentle smile — very few American or European kids have such great teeth and dental arches without significant dental intervention. Could this be due in part because of diet? When I lived in Uganda for a summer, I was struck by child after child that had picture perfect teeth just like this boy’s — bright white and perfectly straight. However, I noticed that the closer a village was to a city, the worse the children’s teeth were. Many of the children in Kampala, the capitol of Uganda, actually had numerous rotten teeth, which broke my heart. I quickly found out what the culprit likely was — soda pop. The closer a community was to a town, the more spoiled teeth I saw, as they had more regular access to the sugary carbonated drinks. The farther away from a town, the more beautiful sets of pearly whites I saw, as these kids rarely, if ever, had soda. I talked to a number of Ugandan parents about the soda pop problem and they were shocked that an American product such as 7-up could wreck such havoc on their children’s health!
Looking at the array of “food” in the American family’s kitchen, I am left wondering if indeed our country’s poor diet is in part responsible for our sky high health care costs. Americans spend more than any other country on health care, but have the eighth lowest life expectancy out of 34 developed countries. Japan, on the other hand, spends about $2,900 per person per year on health care (about $5,000 less than Americans) – and yet they have the highest life expectancy among developed nations. If you take another look at all of the seafood the Japanese are eating, along with lots of vegetables, you have to wonder what role diet plays in life-long health care costs.
As you peruse these photos, what stands out to you? How do these photos make you think about your own diet? How do these photos fit or defy stereotypes about other countries? Do any of the photos really surprise you?
Whatever you see and however you see it, you cannot deny this delightful cross-cultural photo essay provides much food for thought, so bon appetite!