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Once we all ate grains and greens and maybe, on special occasions, a little goat.

Some of the world’s people still eat that way. But, seduced by goliath corporations that market processed, packaged foods, they’d rather eat like us. Here, we consider Coke, fried chicken and Pringles to be inalienable rights. Ease and convenience are the payoffs of economic progress.

Evidence exists on every page of a stunning new book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats . In it, California photographer Peter Menzel and his wife, writer Faith D’Aluisio, take us around the planet to watch its diet changing faster than we can imagine.

"We invited ourselves to dinner with 30 families in 24 countries," the book begins, "to explore humankind’s oldest social activity: eating."

We meet these families shopping, cooking, snacking, hauling water, even hunting seal – and we see them posing with a week’s worth of food. Sometimes the amount of food is puny and heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s huge and heart-sickening.

The photographer told me: "For the first time in the history of the planet, there are more people overfed than underfed."

It’s still a hungry planet, one way or another. Billions long for calories. Others long for brand names or convenience. And in overfed countries like ours, experts say, our longing for love and safety and meaning disguises itself as hunger for a jumbo taco salad. In the book:

A Mexican family of five stands smiling in their dining room amid lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. But bringing up the rear are a dozen two-quart jugs of full-sugar Coke. Mom, Dad and the oldest boy, 7, are chunky.

In Beijing, 11 pounds of rice feeds a family of four, but so do French baguettes, Maxwell House coffee creamer, Coca Cola, KFC fast food and more than a pound of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Dad, 39, grew up eating starfish from the sea but now rejects that street fare as low-class.

In a remote village in Greenland, the Madsens pose with their TV on, because they never eat without it. On the table are musk ox and walrus Dad hunted, plus brightly packaged food from around the world, including Pringles, Ritz crackers, Heinz ketchup and Nescafe instant coffee, as ubiquitous as Coke.

Their village has no food store. They haul their food home by dogsled from a town two hours away.

In Chad, a refugee family of six sits on a rug in front of their tent with cloth sacks of sorghum and a corn-soy blend. Meat for the week: 9 ounces of goat among them, plus 7 ounces of dried fish.

Their weekly food costs the equivalent of $1.23. Theirs is the smallest food budget in the book.

Some families, like the Chad refugees, have no table. Others’ tables overflow.

Only a few of the people in the book are obviously obese, and none in the three American families, one white, one black, one Hispanic.

Instead, the families were chosen because they seemed average.

The book was conceived eight years ago when, on another project, the couple interviewed scrawny, sickly residents in one of the most remote corners of the world, a village in Papua, Indonesia. Faith watched, amazed, as two boys shared a package of ramen noodles identical to what you could buy in any U.S. supermarket for about 20 cents.

One boy chewed up the brick of dried noodles. The other sucked down the contents of the cellophane packet of artificial flavorings. Since then, the couple have worked to figure out what’s happening in the world’s markets and its bellies, and why. They admit they fought despair at seeing processed, chemicalized, First World food burrowing into diets once wholesome with the unadorned produce of the Earth.

"That’s what people aspire to," Faith said, sighing, "to be able to buy that kind of food."

The couple, married 12 years, travel six to eight months a year, but rarely for more than three weeks at a time. They sleep with the families they’re visiting, or somewhere nearby, sometimes pitching a tent.

Back home, the pair eats consciously and mostly organically.

Their work, no surprise, has changed them. They donate about $3,000 annually to a scholarship fund for the children of families they’ve photographed, young people from Mongolia, Cuba, Guatemala and other spots. About 20 students have benefited.

"We’re one, big extended family," says Faith, "and we have been known to yell when we get the grade reports."

She now adds to her soups an ancient grain, tasted in Ecuador, called quinoa. Each time she turns on their kitchen faucet she remembers the families in Mali and Chad who have no faucets but must carry their water in.

And while Peter is just 10 pounds over his high school weight, the project persuaded him to eat less. He sees Americans all around him "literally eating themselves to death" and takes inspiration from wisdom they heard from old people on Okinawa, where a surprising number of residents are healthy past 100.

Their parents, Peter recounted, didn’t tell them to clean their plates or have a second helping. Instead, they were told, as he tells himself: "Hara hachi bu: Eat only until 80 percent full." © 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.