The Fattening of Thailand

October 1, 2013

A Tourist Authority of Thailand’s marketing slogan directed at attracting tourists here is “Thailand Land of Smiles”. This is often shortened to the nickname “LOS”.  Besides being famous for their smiles Thais used to be well-known for being so thin and slim that the TAT slogan could have been “Thailand Land of the Svelte”. But not anymore. Lately, “LOS” could just as easily stand for “Land of the Stout”.  Thailand is getting fat.

I saw one of the reasons up close recently at the supermarket.

Occasionally I like to go on a quest. Today the Holy Grail for me was to find some microwave popcorn at the local Big C. I had downloaded a good movie and was planning on settling down to a pig-out popcorn and Pepsi night in my living room with a movie rated to have at least one explosion every 3½ minutes. Got to have popcorn for that.

As I walked down the supermarket aisles searching for the elusive blue and white microwave popcorn bag my questing senses became acutely aware of my surroundings. I spied rows and rows of colorful plastic bags full of snack foods, inexpensive soft drinks, sugar filled milk and soy products, deep fried instant noodles, candies, gums, cookies, cakes, and glazed donuts galore.

Then I looked around at the Thai shoppers and their children, the ones who were buying this stuff, and I realized that I was looking at a Thailand that was much different from the one I saw when I first came here so many years ago. Now I saw chubby children, fat adults, and overweight teenagers. It was like a flashback to the last time I was at a Wal-Mart back in the States. But this was Thailand. Then it hit me as I dropped my quest for that salty artificial butter infused teat. Thailand is getting fat.

I decided to do some Google searches for “Obesity in Thailand” just to see if my observations weren’t merely hallucinations. Here are some of the results I came up with.

No, I wasn’t hallucinating about the people of Thailand. And it’s not just Thailand. On the same website as above, from a 2011 WHO profile, here are the percentages of overweight people in Southeast Asia.

  • Vietnam 10.1
  • Cambodia 12.2
  • Laos 13.3
  • Myanmar 18.4
  • Indonesia 21.0
  • Philippines 26.5
  • Singapore 30.2
  • Thailand 32.2
  • Malaysia 44.2

Notice anything interesting about this list? The people start getting more overweight as they become more prosperous. The thinnest were the Vietnamese, those veggie-wrap eaters. And the worst were the Malaysians. What must they be eating in Malaysia?

*****

It wasn’t that long ago that the term “overweight Thai” would have been considered an oxymoron. You just never saw any. When I first came to Thailand I was a thin, in-shape 22 year old and almost everyone in Thailand was even thinner than I was. Since it was so rare I can even remember the few times when I saw an overweight young Thai – always attributed to a “glandular problem”.  Now, about 20 extra kilos later, I seem to be surrounded by a country that has grown heavier with me. But I am now 67 years old and at least have that as an excuse. The fat people I see around me are mostly children.

When I first began teaching at a boys high school here in Chiang Mai the normal after-school activity was for the boys to assemble on the football field and basketball and volleyball courts and spend the next few hours knocking each other around and getting physical exercise. Today the students still spend a few hours a day getting physical exercise. But now it seems to be only their thumbs getting the workout and the rest of their bodies are just growing fat. The difference is today these young people are sitting at a computer terminal and playing video football instead of real football. I wonder how many of these boys know the joy of kicking a real ball around.

Video games and lack of exercise aren’t the only things causing this overweight epidemic here in Thailand. One needs to ingest lots of calories to really be able to chunk up. And if you look at the supermarket aisles, the omnipresent snack and drink carts, and the ubiquitous TV commercials for sweets, you’ll see that the Thais have a really good opportunity to do just that.

Once while shopping at Macro I noticed a chubby 12 year old boy following his mother around while she did her shopping. He had a plastic bag in one hand and a stick of barbecued pork in the other. He finished one stick and pulled out another from the bag, then another. Being the nosy guy I am, and bored since I was shopping with my wife, I followed the boy around to see how much he would eat. While I watched he ate 10 sticks of pork and then proceeded to eat 3 sticks of Thai meatballs. And then the bag was empty, show over, and I walked on.

Later at the checkout counter I met up with him again. He now had a bag of cookies open and was happily crunching on them and sipping a smoothie. Mom, a thin woman, didn’t seem to be concerned about her son’s gastronomical indulgences. In fact she probably bought all that food for him in the first place. This was at 10 o’clock in the morning. I wondered what he would have for lunch.

He always has the choice of KFC, Mickey Dees, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Swenson’s Ice Cream, 7-Eleven, and scores of other high-so/high-cal/high-fat food emporiums. I mean, doesn’t anyone eat at the local roadside noodle shop anymore?

There is a perception here in Thailand, and other parts of Asia, that chubby = healthy. Some people feel that a child is healthier and better cared for if he/she is a bit chunky. Also in their eyes Chubbiness often equals prosperity – especially in old guys like me. If you are old and fat then you must be rich (not my situation I am sorry to say) But what if you are young and fat?

I recently saw a picture of a 270 kilo Thai teenager in the newspaper (Daily News). For those of us who are math challenged, or come from America, that’s 594 lbs. That’s as much as a whole village used to weigh.

Asians have often been criticized for adopting western fads and ideas, usually the worst of them, sometimes without thinking about the impact it would have on them and their culture. Sometimes the western fads are okay. The adoption of the miniskirt was a great cultural leap forward in my opinion. And although it may fry your brains, listening to Rap music won’t kill you. But emulating the Fat West and what they eat can kill you.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, used to be a western problem and quite rare here in Thailand. Now they are problems Thai doctors see here on a regular basis.

Solution to the problem: Stop eating so much, stop eating so much crap, and maybe replace it with a traditional bowl of Thai noodles once in a while – preferably after a nice long run or playing a couple of hours of real football.

I am writing about the growing “prosperity” of the Thais not because I am being fat-phobic. That would be self-hatred. I am more health-fixated.  So I have decided to set an example and lose my own weight (once again). And as for that popcorn and Pepsi orgy I had planned for tonight. Well, I think that those movie explosions will go just as well with a mango and a nice cup of tea.

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