Photo: Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University
Thailand is well-known for its unique cuisine – from its vegetable-packed curries to spicy papaya salad, or somtam. It has food that’s not only tasty, but usually considered healthy as well.
But in recent years, the nation’s changing appetites, habits and lifestyles are starting to catch up with its famously lithe physiques.
In recent years government warnings have become more frequent about the rise of the country’s average weight. The Ministry of Public Health argues that Thailand is among the top five countries in the Asia with the highest number of obese citizens, and it estimates around 21 million will be overweight by next year.
The fact that people become overweight, or even obese seems to be commonly accepted. The World Health Organization advises that the world’s fattening problem today isn’t with hefty North Americans but increasingly extends into the developing world.
According to the study, the prevalence of obesity in children 5 to 12 rose from 12.2 percent to 16 percent within two years. Furthermore the overall prevalance of obesity reached 32.2 percent in 2011, not far behind Malaysia’s 44 percent.
Prevalence of overweight populations for adults of both sexes by nation in Southeast Asia. Please don’t eat Vietnam. Data: World Health Organization
During the National Health Assembly last year, its organising committee president, Sirina Pawarorarnwittaya, said data from 2009 showed that Bangkok residents were most at risk of obesity, whereas the northeastern region showed the least risk.
So if the current trends continue, will Thailand become Fatland? Which brings us to the question: Why is this happening?
‘Anytime a developing country has a big rate of progress, there’s obesity’
Obesity usually occurs in a developing country where fast-paced progress is abundant, at least according to international economist Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.”
Patel states that multinational companies exploit the lack of time workers have by offering them fast food, which indubitably leads to overweight issues as they are jam-packed with sugars, salts, and fats.
“Anytime a developing country has a big rate of progress, there’s obesity,” adds nutritionist expert Brian Allen, who has been based in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia for over two decades. While in the region, he allegedly witnessed a “dramatic growth in [the] average size of women and men in Thailand.”
Allen goes to to explain that healthier individuals weren’t as scarce pre-progress as many were more self-sufficient in making their own food. The diet problem arises once individuals become “Westernized.”
“People in Thailand passed from natural foods into processed foods, with chemicals and preservatives that are harmful for us,” Allen said, affirming that the gastronomic evolution “affects our digestion, macrobiotics and environments.”
Lack of time, and a growing dependence on processed foods
An increasing number of people fall back on fast food or boxed meals easily found in a convenience store due to the high-stress and fast-paced urban lifestyle. Patel admits that it is normal in today’s society to have insufficient time for eating.
Allen believes that relocating to a city like Bangkok is a symbol of being successful and prosperous, and people thus “sacrifice their health with boxed meals or fast foods” to acclimate to their new lifestyle, which “can be better, but not healthier.”
This lack of time, he suggests, is even more harmful when kids are involved. Today’s parents can hardly afford the time to prepare meals at home, and so resort to providing their children with pocket money to purchase food at stores like 7-Eleven or Big C. And of course, the adolescents do not care, or even hardly know about the harm excess sugar and fats can bring to one’s health.
A recent study by the Southeast Asia Nutrition Survey indicates more Thai children will be overweight, shorter, and have lower IQ in the next decade due to a lack of exercise and insufficient nutrients.
“Don’t let them stay in the house glued to electronic screens,” said Dr. Kallaya Kijboonchoo, head of the Mahidol University Nutrition Physiology department. “These bad habits will lead to eating out of proportion, not eating on time, and eating low-quality food.”
Not even restaurants are healthy
If you are in the school of thought that dining in a reputable restaurant serving ‘fresh food’ is a better solution, nutritionist Brian Allen will dispute that.
“Thai food at the restaurants are following the same path; their noodles are dehydrated and [they] use industrial stuff,” he said.
He also points to the plethora of street food in Bangkok, that is mainly oil-based. Allen says the street vendors have no choice but to use cheap, unhealthy ingredients to keep prices competitive.
The difficult albeit healthy alternative
For Patel, the definition of poverty can extend to a “lack of choice [of] what to eat,” as opposed to just starvation in poor countries.
Although Bangkok has some organic shops, prices are so high that they are not affordable for the masses. “Even mid-class people can’t pay the price,” Allen said.
As for cheaper alternatives such as convenience stores, healthy options are scarce in sight, even if the products claim to have “0 percent fats processed foods,” that for Allen are “falsely” good.
Said “light” or “low-fat” products could be even more harmful than what they aim to replace. Despite assuming the appearance of being a healthier alternative, “0 percent fat” milk is fully-packed with sugar.
Another example would be the popular “slim” canned coffee, which often claims to contain only 10 fat-related calories. In truth, the fact that it contains over a 100 calories of sugar is often overlooked or discreetly hidden from consumers.
Excessive consumption of sugar
According to the Ministry of Health, a Thai citizen consumes 30 kilograms of sugar per year on average – three times the maximum recommended intake of 25 grams per day.
Sugar consumption is deeply rooted in Thai culture. The problem, Allen explains, is the in-country move from natural to processed sugars. He advises individuals not to consume anything with white sugar, such as in noodles or white rice, which are staples in an Asian diet.
The same goes for boxed fruit juices, which contain alarming quantities of sugar by the box. Moreover, Allen claims that one consumes more carbohydrates than the maximum quantity needed per day with just one glass of commercial fruit juice.
Lack of exercise and an abundance of transportation
Without a doubt, a prominent factor in the rise of overweight individuals lies in the boom of motorized vehicles. While motosai’s and taxis are cheap and easy to come by, Bangkok denizens are also unaccustomed to walking in tropical weather, polluted streets, and unpaved walkways.
The Health Department recently launched a campaign called “No Belly Fat,” urging everyone to maintain a healthy life by eating right and exercising.
But Allen thinks the latter will be tough to accomplish for Thais, as there aren’t many parks aside from Lumphini and Benjasiri, and the construction boom of the last decade is only seeing new malls erected by the dozen. Cheap alternatives to exercise indoors are also close to non-existent.
For now, experts advise staying away from processed and boxed food as well as sugary drinks as a temporary solution.