When I first came to Thailand in the early eighties one of the first things I noticed was how slim everybody was.
The obesity epidemic that was already beginning to rear its head in the west had not touched Thailand one iota. Everybody both young and old, rich and poor, male and female all seemed so lean and fit looking.
They were all so good looking – the most beautiful race on earth – and they looked so healthy. I was young, thin and healthy too so I fit right in…
But as people in the west have grown dangerously fat to the point where huge percentages of populations are clinically if not morbidly obese, so has Thailand begun to change.
In fact it seems to be picking up pace as fat people in both the cities and the countryside are not just a figure of fun curiosity anymore but becoming a regular occurrence. There are lots of fat people in Thailand and worryingly many of them are children. Doctors are often quoted as being concerned.
Now, I am not having a go at fat Thai people. Some of my best friends are on the pum pooey side but I never used to know anyone in the country who I had to be careful around lest they inadvertently stepped on my toe. Now there are tons. You see them everywhere.
Is it the change in diets?
Back in the eighties it was virtually impossible to get anything as simple as milk. Villa supermarket was open but there was no such thing as a convenience store. There was Seven – Up but no 7 – 11. No Thai in their right mind would have bought a pre-packaged mean from a regular shop, though of course they have always been a nation of buying things to eat off street vendors in plastic bags.
And of course there was absolutely no western fast food outlets. Not a MacDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut anywhere. But the Thais did still seem to eat a lot of fried stuff out of a wok. A lot of curries with coconut milk.
Was it the number of meals they had per day and the size of the meals that kept them slim?
Thais seemed to eat a lot more meals and snacks per day than I was used when I had grown up but the size of the meals was markedly different. Did that make a different to their girth? Maybe they digested things better. There used to be an advertising slogan in the UK about a chocolate called Milky Way that you could eat between meals that would not ruin your appetite…..it didn’t seem that would go down well in Thailand. Everyone has always eaten between meals.
Was it their circumstances?
Thais seemed to be a busy people always on the go and very active. Has this changed? The whole world is becoming more sedentary what with the rise in technology. But there again there were always the lazy ones sitting around all day too. It was just that they didn’t sem to get fat either.
Have Thais stopped walking so much?
They never seemed to walk much even 35 years ago; if they could afford transport even over a few hundred meters they would take it rather than bake in the sun. OK, admittedly far fewer city folk owned cars or even motorbikes but they still used the bus – hardly exercise even if they were walking to the stop.
Has greater wealth caused it?
Are people lazier because they have more money? Surely they can afford to go to a gym now. There never was such a place anywhere in Thailand – and no need of it either.
What’s more in the older days no Thai ever thought about their diet in terms of getting a balanced one. They just seemed to eat what they wanted whenever they wanted and just stayed slim.
People were called Moo (pig) and even Uan (fat) but they were just as slim as those called Lek (small).
Maybe they should just blame the West – it has after all been used as a convenient excuse from time to time. Those fast food outlets are certainly everywhere and Thais as much as anybody find it hard to turn down a fat laden Big Mac or a huge pile of calorie jumping French Fries. Almost gone in the cities are the simple Thai ice creams that were not over sweet, replaced by Swenson’s where you can smell the sugar. The queue at the donut shops is always long When Krispy Kreme opened its doors you couldn’t get in the store…not that I tried.
When I started as a teacher at international schools in Bangkok in the early 90s the only fat children were westerners. None were Thai, ever.
This started to change considerably and was noticeable in children of all ages in the first few years of the new century.
In 2005 I was so concerned about the size of one student (who was called ‘Big’) that I approached the person responsible for his social welfare at the school. They decided to diplomatically talk to the parents. The problem is that as the Thais have got bigger they have ignored the issue by and large, if you’ll excuse the pun. If there were fat people before it was always associated with being wealthy and therefore not a bad thing. If you were fat you were just a figure of fun and the stereotype was that they were more likeable so what was the problem? In the case of Big he was removed from the school quickly thereafter – had we stepped on toes…
Later I suggested to several of my superiors that parents of fat children could be guilty of child abuse. Western administrators understood but refused to do anything about it. It was new to them and they were worried about culturally offending the Thais. Thais of my acquaintance who heard my views just thought I was having a laugh. I wasn’t. People who fill up their kids with sweets, snacks and crap are not being kind parents…they are abusing their children.
In my house – much to the consternation of my Thai wife – I banned all sugary soft drinks like Coke and Fanta and cleared the fridge of chocolate. The kids soon got used to it and to be fair so did the wife whose frugality was easy to appeal to – water with meals was after all much cheaper than fizzy drinks. Years later my son told me it was one of the best things I did as a father. At the time I had been criticized as heartless dad. At least I did something right.
As far as I am concerned adults in the general public can eat themselves to an early death as far as I care but people who overfeed their children and just as importantly give them crap to eat should be held accountable.
But I don’t want to see this lovely nation go the way of other countries when the signs are there for all to see.
Or are they?
Is it just me or are Thais getting much fatter? And if they are what are the reasons for this? Is there a big difference between the cities and the countryside?
And, vitally, what should be done about it, to stop or at least limit the number of Thais at the end of the next decade who will surely resemble the awful sights one sees waddling in the West today?