Need to Lose a Few Extra Pounds? Visit a Developing Country and Try the Poverty Diet.


I just came back from an extended vacation to find my clothes hanging off of me in loose folds. No, I didn’t go to a fancy weight loss retreat. My vacation was an all-inclusive of sorts, but instead of a ship’s buffet of delicacies served up 3 times a day, I was studying Spanish, living with a Guatemalan family, and eating my meals with them.

The headline isn’t meant to be offensive. It’s just that this is the first time I haven’t had to make a New Year’s resolution to drop those extra 5 or 10 pounds. As I think about the crazy diets that people all over the country are starting this week – The Cookie Diet, The Eat-Whatever-You-Want-For-One-Hour-A-Day-And-Starve-Yourself-the-Rest-of-the-Time Diet, the Caveman Diet – I can’t help but reflect on the almost unfathomable privilege inherent in not only being able to choose what and how much to eat at any time of the day, but also in our efforts to not eat, when a large part of the world struggles to get enough to eat. Guatemala being only one such place.

My experience wasn’t typical compared to other students I spoke with. It was better. My host mom ran a small restaurant in her home kitchen, so she’s a very good and resourceful cook who provides meals with more variety than most students are treated to.

Here’s a typical day:

Breakfast: Mush – a very thin, watery oatmeal with a banana cut up in it (if you are lucky) and lots of sugar. We’d also get a pancake, but that wasn’t typical, and coffee – very nice!

Lunch: This is the big meal of the day. Usually a 2 or 3-ounce portion of some type of meat and a half-cup of rice or potatoes – always accompanied by tortillas (the one thing there was always more of). Sometimes we’d have a vegetable, but not always. On another day, we’d get a clear chicken broth with potatoes and squash in a small bowl, accompanied by a small piece of chicken (usually a back or part of a thigh) and occasionally, a quarter of an avocado.

Dinner: A small scoop of beans, two fried eggs and more tortillas.

This was it. No snacks, no desserts, no seconds, no big feasts, nothing. On Christmas Eve we had tamales, which were special, but it wasn’t a feast, it was tamales with sliced white bread, nothing more.

Though I was hungry some of the time, I was living quite well compared to most Guatemalans. So, I was surprised to discover that I’d lost about 7 pounds.

Here’s a snapshot of what poverty in Guatemala means:

According to the World Bank, Guatemala has one of the most unequal income distributions in the hemisphere. The wealthiest 10% of the population receives almost one-half of all income; the top 20% receives two-thirds of all income. Somewhere between 32% and 70% of the population lives on less than $2 a day (or about 15 Quetzales) depending on whom you ask and when the statistic was gathered. The cost of basic food items has gone up 40% in the past two years, pushing many people into poverty. By some estimates, up to half of children in Guatemala live with chronic malnutrition.

The poverty in rural areas is worse than in the cities. A schoolteacher or well-paid factory worker in a city makes about  $130 – $150 a month, or about 1,000 Quetzales. What does this money buy, foodwise? It’s hard for me to tell, because when I went to a market or restaurant, I paid tourist prices. A typical and cheap breakfast in a restaurant cost me about 20 Q. At the market a dozen tortillas cost 2 or 3 Q; a few pieces of fruit, 5 Q; a bag of rice, 10 Q; a half a chicken, 14 Q. Even if you consider that the prices for locals might be a bit less than the prices I paid, it’s not difficult to see how hard it would be for a family to get enough nourishment.

Many Guatemalan people (especially indigenous rural dwellers) have nothing to eat all day except tortillas. Some days they might get beans or rice, but not every day. Luckily, many rural Guatemalans are able to practice subsistence farming, or they would surely starve. But for many, even this tenuous way of life is threatened. As the country opens to more foreign investment and privatization through organizations like the World Bank, and treaties like CAFTA, more and more lands are being opened up to extractive industries that contaminate the land and push rural Guatemalans into lives of even more miserable poverty in the cities. You can read about Guatemalan resistance to open pit mining here.

The next time you’re worried about those extra holiday pounds, please take a moment to count your blessings. I know I will.

Image: greencolander

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.