When I first started working in Thailand back in 2010, I remember listening to a casual debate among my fellow teachers whether or not the Thai diet was a healthy one. Upon first glance it certainly appears so, as meals were smaller (farangs would joke about ordering two plates of food), and the people were generally petite and thin.

But another teacher exclaimed that everything is deep fried, and sugar is tossed into foods as generously as road rules are ignored. I grew up watching my (Thai) mom cook, and she’d tablespoon sugar into stir-frys and other dishes that Westerners would consider sugar-free. But both my former colleagues are correct, and I think this is why folks both foreign and local don’t see how much the Thai diet has changed – and not for the better.

Deep fried treats [Chiang Mai, 2014]

A quick overview

In 2013, Forbes published an article on how Thais stay thin eating all day. Month-long visitor, Elisa observed the smaller portions of meat, and absence of Western sweets like cakes and brownies. And while she mentions bone structure or “good genes”, she praises the Thai diet for it’s healthy snacks like sliced green mango or roasted bananas, and generally avoiding fast food.

Yet as early as 2002, a researcher from the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University published a paper that would have sent many people into a state of sugar-induced shock.

• “Thai staples and side dishes are being replaced by diets containing a higher proportion of fats and animal meat.
• More consumption of ready-to-eat food, in both rural and urban settings.
• The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents has increased dramatically during the past 20 years.
• Among adults, results from two national surveys in 1991 and 1996 indicated that the problem of overweight and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease have increased significantly.” [emphasis mine]

Back in 2014 a made the comparison of the American South, and the North of Thailand – for your consideration, sweet tea.

What I’ve noticed

I’ve been living in Thailand off-and-on for the past ten years in cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and now Rayong. Teaching here and returning from other countries has allowed me to observe the population, specifically, my students who are typically teenagers or young adults. I’ve been able to watch the student body grow both taller and fatter. Many teens now have very bad acne, whereas in the past this was not the case. And of course, I’ve witnessed how they eat because they often snack during class breaks.

It’s common to see my students with deep fried meats, and convenient snacks from 7-11. Now, all teenagers love junk food. I was no exception, but what’s interesting is how abundant these kinds of foods are available for them.

If you happen to walk by any school at the end of the day, you’ll see street vendors lined up. What they often sell is:

• deep fried processed meats with a spicy or sweet chili sauce
• Mama (the local brand of instant) noodles
• powdered/instant drinks and sodas
• french fries (sometimes with a cheese sauce of an unnatural color)
• fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken
* there might be one fruit seller among the vats of bubbling oil

If the kids go to 7-11 during their break/snack times, they get:

• microwaved foods such as burgers, rice dishes, and cheesy lasagna
• processed toasted sandwiches
• chips or other bagged snacks like dried squid strips
• sugary drinks from chocolate milk to soda to teas
• ice cream
*and it should be noted that they often buy several of these items at once

I used to visit my great aunt who was one of those school-side vendors. One day I watched her making curry (the kind with the chunks of blood). My eyes widened when I saw her cut open a generous bag of MSG and pour all of it in. To be fair, it was a big batch she was making. To be not fair, did all of it need to go in? Regardless of whether or not you think MSG is bad for you or not, it was a lot of flavor enhancer. And this is coming from the gal (me) who loves her some table salt.

Sure, sushi is also popular, as are papaya salads. Occasionally, there will be a student eating fried bugs. But you’d be amazed at the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in these kids’ diets. It’s not uncommon to hear that students declare they hate bananas. I guess because it’s so abundant here. Thais love KFC, too. The idea that Thais don’t eat fast food like McDonalds (as mentioned in the Forbes article) is desperately outdated as the country has become more industrialized over the decades.

Hopefully, they eat better at home.

fresh market in Rayong
So many fruits! [Rayong, 2019]

Sugar, but it tastes so good

It’s a shame because Thai dishes can be traditionally flavorful and healthy. I certainly understand why foreigners believe the diet is a good one when you see Thailand’s abundance of produce. But it does come back to the amount of sugar they put in foods you wouldn’t think they would like in salads and smoothies. It adds up.

Or I should say it has been adding up because “obesity in Thailand has been flagged a major issue with 32% of the population identifying as overweight and 9% obese. With reference to 2016 data from the WHO, Thailand has one of the highest incidence of overweight citizens in the South East Asian region, second to only Malaysia.”

The big news in 2019 was the reveal of how much sugar is in bubble tea drinks which is all the rage. With my American sponsored students, I tried to raise awareness of the amount of sugar Thais consume (four times (26 teaspoons) as much as the recommended amount by the World Health Organization (6 spoonfuls), but like most kids, they ignored the news.

I couldn’t help but wonder if 26 teaspoons was an average or a conservative guess because if I haven’t said it enough, sugar is in everything. Just the other day I noticed my fresh cut pineapple came with a packet of sugar, and this is normal. There have been attempts by the government to label low sugar foods with a ‘healthy’ symbol, and even a crackdown on companies who take advantage of Thais love of gambling thereby drinking their way though one sugary drink at a time to see if they’ve got the winning bottle cap.

With the change in Thais’ standard of living has also come the higher consumption of meat (and bigger portions). This has been personally illustrated in a couple of ways. First, upon returning to Thailand from over two years in Cambodia, I noticed how much more food was given to me. Prices had gone up from 30 baht to 40 for a standard plate of food, but so had the amount of meats and portions in general.

Secondly, as I have recently switched to a plant-based diet/vegan diet, my boss was considerate enough to pre-order vegetarian fried rice for our recent Thanksgiving buffet with the scholarship students. (I didn’t ask and I wasn’t expecting any special treatment.) But what was delivered was shrimp fried rice. Even though I said, it’s okay, what ended up happening was a series of questions regarding what happened to our original order.

Soon we discovered that one of our office gals thought the order was a joke. Our boss then shared how his Thai wife will veto vegetarian options in lieu of adding some meat as well. The idea being that meat makes the dish seem less ‘poor’, as in, we can afford to meat! We had a good laugh over it, but the conversation revealed what Asian countries like Thailand and China are doing to their health.

As I like to say, it’s only questionable if you ask questions. [Chiang Mai, 2014]

And then there’s China…

A quick internet search uncovers China’s growing demand for meat. Consider this from The Economist, “Around the globe, China’s growing hunger for red meat, specifically, has seen its beef imports grow 40-fold between 2010 and 2018. Obesity, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure are taking a growing toll. To curb such afflictions, guidelines issued in 2016 urge adults to eat just 40-75 grammes of meat a day, or about half the current national average.”

Actually, the news is overwhelming and worth the segue because of China’s influence, not only this part of the world, but across the globe. Quartz claims that China’s biggest health problem is high blood pressure (the silent killer), and just like Thailand, this is due to their growing middle class and consumption of processed Western foods.

Bloomburg published a comprehensive chart of the leading causes of “years of life lost” and a diabetes map of China if you’re interested in a more visual assessment of the top health problems plaguing the country.

Getting some practice time in… [Chiang Mai, 2012]

It’s not just them, it’s us, too

Thailand and China’s health crises are also the world’s health problems. From the WHO’s 2019 global threat report, “ Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people. This includes 15 million people dying prematurely, aged between 30 and 69.”

Seriously. Read that again.

It seems humanity likes to learn by mistakes, and making copious amounts of them. We don’t seem particularly good at planning either. It’s hard to believe that we’re at the very beginning of a new decade, 2020, and diet related diseases are killing off 70% of the world’s population. I still can’t believe that we found our 49 year old friend dead of a stroke in his apartment.

We’re stubborn creatures, determined to ignore what’s best for us for what feels good at the moment. We’re also overwhelmed, so we do nothing instead. But the crazy thing is we are in control of our diet and exercise, and these seemingly small things have a long and lasting impact.

 

How has your diet changed for yourself, or in your community?

34 replies on “How the Thai diet has changed for the worse

  1. Lani, this is a very interesting post. I have been horrified by the amount of sugar I see put in food by street vendors or in restaurants where the cooking is done in the open. Not long ago, I saw a guy dump a whole bag of sugar in a beef stew. Stir-fries don’t need sugar!

    I’ve never tried those deep-fried and processed meats you have a photo of in the post. They look horrible. Yet those carts are super busy. Those sugar coffees are delicious, but I only drink them during Songkran week when it is blazing hot and I’m celebrating 🙂 People who drink those daily are just killing their pancreases.

    Over the last year I’ve started making almost all my own meals. As you say, there is fresh produce and fruit here so it is easy to eat healthy food provided you make it yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the reaffirming I’m not the only person to notice these things. It’s a strange feeling to go through life in Thailand noticing these things. Traffic habits is one thing, eating is another monster all together.

      It’s truly a miracle given these observations that we live to be a ripe old age at all! It makes me marvel at our resilient our bodies are, and how many chances we are given at living a normal life.

      And good for you, cooking at home! There are so many resources online that make it easier. 🙂

      Like

  2. Oooh boy, I remember a time in my twenties when all I ate was processed or fast food, not a single fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. My health suffered immensely (we’re talking daily hives that I just “bandaided” by popping copious amounts of antihistamines) but it took months to stop eating like shit. But as soon as I stopped, the hives disappeared and excess weight came off effortlessly. It’s hard to quit the hyper-palatable, calorie-dense yet nutritionally deficient junky foods. I believe they also mess with our natural hunger cues and make us overeat because we don’t feel truly satiated (due to lack of nutrition), so our bodies are screaming GIVE ME SOME NUTRIENTS, YOU IDIOT, which we mistake for a blanket EAT MORE!

    I dunno, I think there’s a time and place for those junky pleasures, but they’re no longer viewed as occasional (or rare) treats. As I get older, I’m more sensitive to how I feel when I eat certain things. If I eat too much “junk”, then I start feeling like junk, so I choose to eat things that make me feel my best, which just happens to be whole, minimally processed foods. I’m super sensitive to sugar now too, I think from my low-carb days when I avoided all forms of sugar and my palate naturally adjusted.

    The stats on obesity and diet-related diseases is alarming! We’re living in an era of over abundance and over indulgence. I have no answers or solutions… it seems we are missing the true message of HEALTH vs. giving into all of your impulses. It’s frightening and I fear it’s only going to get worse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you reminded me of when I ate horribly as well. College, anyone? I was always a picky eater, and like most kids I didn’t like my fruits and veggies despite growing up in tropical Hawaii!

      I have to tell myself that I was a teenager once, and be more understanding to what the kids are eating, but it’s hard to not imagine what they are doing to their bodies.

      Yeah, I still very much enjoy my empty snacks like chips and crackers, but yeah, I can’t be the only one who gets a food hangover?!

      Eating healthy is just as addicting, and like you I’ve found myself more sensitive to these kinds of things.

      You’ve nailed it, “The stats on obesity and diet-related diseases is alarming! We’re living in an era of over abundance and over indulgence. “

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hated vegetables when I was younger too (I was okay with fruit as long as it was super sweet), but these days I look at a bunch of kale like I would have looked at a plate of cookies years ago, lol. Especially during our Japan trip, after days of rice, noodles, and more rice, all I wanted was to destroy a whole head of lettuce.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Lots to take in here. Great post though. Pushing back against ‘the western diet’ seems like an absolute priority for individuals, families, communities and governments. Just read Michael Pollans in defence of food — it gives people some help in making better decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw your post and have been meaning to get over there to read it. I remember seeing the cover of his book…

      Education does seem to be the key. If people knew how harmful processed meats are, and how amazing fruits and vegetables are, I’d like to think there would be the change we need for our bodies and planet.

      Like

      1. Lieberman’s (brilliant) the story of the human body gave me a slightly different view of the crisis. Not only are we predisposed to take in as many available calories as we can while we can , we are also predisposed (and this is the kicker) to rest and conserve energy whenever possible. It’s tough being a human in the 21C!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re very good at giving me smart homework. 😛 I’ll remember to look Lieberman up.

        *Currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow and I LOVE IT. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Huhu Lani,
    When I lived in Thailand I always asked the Thai tea vendors to pour just black tea- nothing added. They were sometimes surprised because the black tea is quite strong and therefore bitter, but it was not really hard to convince them to omit sugar, condensed milk and some kind of powder…
    It was much more difficult to convince the fruit shake vendors that “no sugar” indeed does not mean “just a little bit, maybe something like 2 tablespoons instead of 4″… Quite surprising, because Thai fruit tends to be very sweet anyway (I was sometimes craving a sour apple).
    But opposed to the comment above, I do think that sugar also adds to stir fries and other savory dishes. Just as salt provides some nice balances to a sweet cake, sugar is smoothing all the other tastes. I once ordered som tam Thai without sugar, but switched to “sai waan nid noi” (haha so funny to read in Latin letters) because it Does taste better…
    Well, I hope you can continue with your no-meat diet. Maybe as a motivation: I am a vegetarian since more than 13 years and recently during a medical check up the doctor mentioned that he very seldom saw such good blood parameters 😁.
    Thanks for another informative and interesting post and many greetings,
    Fabian

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments – as always!

      Yes, I agree, a little sugar is nice, but when it comes to my meals I’m on the salty side. I guess I don’t know what I’m missing. 😛 But I do have a sweet tooth. After dinner I love me some desserts! So maybe I like extremes. Hahaha.

      Good for you. Diet is so important and it’s nice when you get validation for your choices by getting a clean bill of health!

      Like

  5. This is so sad, and so totally in sync with what I see here. What’s especially terrible is the perception of meat and fast food as desirable ‘rich people’s food.’ Given that this diet is fatal not only to its consumers, but to the planet as well, I despair.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, but I think like many things, we’ll eventually return to balance. It’s what keeps me going in this crazy world. I also believe it’s what we crave, ultimately, to have balance in our lives – and how long can you live a sustainable life out of harmony?

      Like

  6. This was a fascinating article, Lani.

    I’ve been blessed to have had a lifelong love of fruit and vegetables. Both of them play a major part in my diet. Unfortunately I’ve also had a lifelong love of sugar which I battle constantly (right now it’s winning). Sugar is highly (HIGHLY!!) addictive and it distresses me to hear that it is being added to foods which don’t need it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you on the fruits and veggies. But yeah, sugar is so wonderful, isn’t it?

      When I started baking and following recipes it was a little shocking to see how much a batch of chocolate chip cookies called for. It didn’t take long to figure out that halving the amt or adding very little still produced delicious results. I mean, the choc chips are already sweet!

      Holidays are the worst for any diets or restrictions we give ourselves. But such a good exercise in willpower. 😛

      Thanks, Joanne!

      Like

      1. Recently my oldest (adult) son asked me for the recipe of one of his favourite cakes I’ve been making since he was a child.
        Afterwards he said he now understood why it was so good. He was appalled by the ingredients! I suspect he won’t be making it often 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  7. When I started reading I was thinking, “change the word Thailand for China and it would be perfectly accurate too”. And then you mentioned China later in the article. Yep. Diet has also changed a lot here. Homemade dishes have always contained generous amounts of salt, soy sauce, MSG and sugar, and now apart from that people are always eating all kind of ultraprocessed snacks that are basically more sugar and palm oil and drinking Starbucks or bubble tea which are at least 50% sugar. It’s crazy. And then people say not to eat too much fruit because it will make you fat…
    I think the only added sugar I eat regularly is the one my MIL pours on her dishes. I find it so strange that sugar is used for cooking, in Spain it’s only used for desserts or when making tomato sauce. Chinese people think “western food” is just pizzas and burgers, they’ve never heard of the Mediterranean diet…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG. Love that new word you just coined, “ultraprocessed” so true. I remember the term “frankenfood” in reference to GMOs, but I think it could be used all around for processed and unhealthy foods.

      Yeah, coffee really took off during the time I’ve been here. And those big cold coffees filled with sugar. I read somewhere that cold coffee has more calories than hot coffee…I don’t know how they drink that stuff. It feels wrong going down my throat, like, “whoa”!

      Well, China is about to hear of the Mediterranean diet among other things because the stats for China are scary.

      Like

      1. Oh I didn’t coin that word! It’s all the rage in Spain now because of a very popular Instagram account called Real Food that shares recipes and encourages the consumption of natural and fresh ingredientes. They call ultraprocessed to anything that has more than 5 ingredients I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Really? How interesting. I’ll have to ck it all out. I actually heard a British grocer, Tesco is getting rid of their meat amd fish section due to declining sales! And any time I find a vegan blog it seems to be European…you all are ahead of us Americans 😅

        Like

  8. I’m certain I would be accused of fat-shaming. It is noticeable for recent immigrants and indeed those born in North America, in the younger generations, the gals among the Asian community are a blend…some just bigger, others slim.

    For sure, diet, not genes is a powerful determinant these days for what I see as a casual observer. I don’t recall seeing as many women in my generation unhealthily overweight compared to younger generations.

    Disappointing that more Thais falling for the heavier, unhealthier foods more often. 😦 I’m not surprised by China…it’s obvious looking at recent immigrants from mainland China. Vs. immigrants 30 years ago from same country.

    Like

    1. It is disappointing, but America has certainly fallen into the same trap. And, the population is more educated, and certainly has more knowledge to health conscious information. So what’s our excuse?

      It seems that with a more comfortable lifestyle and way of living, comes the challenges of easy temptations. Hopefully, we’ll start to turn around these bad habits.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For Asian countries falling into the trap, it’ll take a generation of some people falling ill from bad habits before true reality sinks in.

        Like

  9. I liked this post. I guess it is happening all over the world. Very easy access and no efforts to cook- just order food and consume without knowing how it is cooked. People are becoming rich to afford costly medication.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I was hoping Thailand could somehow avoid the global trend of obesity but it seems I was wrong. 😯 Westerners tend to think it’s a more healthy diet because they mostly get to see those lovely pics with tons of fruits and vegetables in the markets, not realizing that there’s lots of putting sugar in everything and deep-frying, at least I didn’t. You might have guessed that Germany faces the same problems, though we have our share of vegans lacking necessary minerals and such because of their supposedly healthier diet too. It’s a weird world we live in and it gets just weirder and weirder…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking the other day how we are divided not only by extreme politics, but by diet as well. It’s something I want to explore a little more…but yeah, any diet can fall short if you don’t eat your fruits and veggies! I always thought I ate enough, or knew it when I didn’t eat healthily, but now I feel like I was fooling myself a bit.

      Thailand has fallen into many of the same traps as the West, and it’s been heartbreaking to watch/witness as an expat, but there’s nothing you can do. Nobody wants to be told how they should do it. But the good news is they are FINALLY trying to eliminate plastic bags at the grocers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean, we are certainly good at fooling ourselves! I’m kind of hoping that my diet isn’t as bad as that of some other people, and I really try to stay away from too much of the good stuff… eh bad stuff. 😉
        Maybe there’s are connection between the two, politics and diet? Could be a subject for scientific research. 🙂
        And yay to eliminating plastic bags at the grocers!! Germany still offers them, though you need to pay for them now – which doesn’t really people’s attraction to them. 😦 I’ve been using reusable cotton shopping bags since the early 90’s only but there are still lots of people who can’t be bothered…

        Liked by 1 person

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