What I Eat: Around the World in 25 Diets

This Museum of Science exhibit does an excellent job comparing cultural eating habits, but that's not all.

An image from the Museum of Science’s Around the World in 25 Diets. (Photo by Peter Menzel.)

Have you ever wondered how the American diet, or specifically, your own diet, compares to the diets of people around the world? Maybe you have traveled to other countries and noted the differences in how and what people eat. Or you’re like me, facing an endless barrage about why the American diet is wrong while others cultures have it right.

Enter the Museum of Science’s new exhibit, “What I Eat: Around the World in 25 Diets” – a selection of photoessays from a new book by photographer and writer duo Peter Mensel and Faith D’Aluisio. It’s not the most cheerful exhibit — it spends a lot of time on the more sinister sides of eating, such as hunger and eating disorders — but it is thought provoking.

There are a couple points that hit you off the bat. For instance, the photo-essays are showcased by calorie content, not geographical location. What’s more, multiple people from various countries, like America and Venezuela, were chosen, and members from those countries appeared in many different calorie ranges. For example, a Venezuelan girl consumed 4,000 calories, while a Venezuelan man consumed 6,000 calories. It’s not a surprise that calorie levels can differ from person to person, and indeed, day by day. In fact, the authors explicitly state that each depiction is meant to be a snapshot of calories eaten in one day, but is not necessarily an average day for each individual. So why make them such such a prominent part of the exhibit?

That’s when I got it: this exhibit does a great job comparing cultural eating habits, but that’s not all. It also represents how food is eaten in the context of daily life. That context is comprised of individuals’ culture, environment, income, family, and much more. In the case of the two Venezuelans, their jobs greatly influenced their eating habits. The man was an oil platform chief and had a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish because he had access to the delivery boats. The girl, though, was a high school student, who lived, worked, and went to school in a very dangerous neighborhood, and thus ate more processed foods. This was also true for an American woman — a Mall of America employee, specifically — whose diet consisted primarily of fast food from the food court.

So what can this exhibit tell us about our eating habits? Out of the 30 countries represented, the United States was the richest, ate the most meat, and spent the most amount of money on healthcare, yet it has the highest rate of obesity. The biggest takeaway from this exhibit is that it’s valuable for individuals to examine how their diet fits into the context of their life. Gaining this insight will help you achieve your health goals. For example, you may find a connection between working long hours and eating fast food. In order to make behavior changes stick; you have to change your environment. I don’t mean quit your job, necessarily, but in this example, it would be worthwhile for you to explore ways to incorporate food preparation into your week.

There are so many aspects to this exhibit that it is worthwhile to check it out yourself and see how it will resonate with you. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, author and poet,

“Eating with the fullest pleasure is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.”