An Unfavorable Trend: Obesity Grows Rampant in Asia

Jul 3, 2020 | 360, Asia, Malaysia, TASTE, Thailand

Due to urbanization, obesity is prevalent in Asia going so far as to complicate healthcare and government budgets and wreak havoc on Thailand’s monks

Asia has been in the midst of strong economic growth for the past couple of years, but this success as a continent has resulted in a new underlying problem in many of its nations. Obesity in Asia is starting to reach ‘epidemic’ levels with a whopping estimate of one billion obese or overweight individuals in the Asia-Pacific alone. The economic boom has made food prices more affordable, leading to unhealthy eating habits and unwholesome lifestyles.

Currently, Malaysia and Thailand hold the torch for having the highest percentages of obesity in the Asia-Pacific with 14% and 9% of the population being overweight, respectively. Asian countries are known for having low prevalence of obesity worldwide, but times are changing and the rates are growing fast. Vietnam is reported to have the highest growth percentage for obesity, increasing 38% in five years. Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines are following close by with fast-growing obesity percentages slowly building as the years go by, according to Fitch Solutions.

Obesity comes with numerous health risks such as heart disease and diabetes. If the issue continues to stay unmoderated, the Asia-Pacific will be facing economic loss due to impending healthcare costs. This will bring low productivity to many of the nations and drag Asia down, possibly dismissing its recent boom in the economy.

Malyasian Overweight Adutls - NHMS - World Health Organization

Thailand’s Monks in Helpless Health Distress:

Buddhism is Thailand’s dominant religion with over 90% of the population in the practice, making the country’s monks highly regarded and respected. Unfortunately, these monks are facing serious health problems: they are gaining too much weight. 

According to the National Health Commission Office, there are approximately 350,000 monks in Thailand and almost half are considered to be obese. What makes the situation worse is that the monks are unable to control their diet. Food offerings are given to them in the morning and they are required to consume the tokens as a sign of gratitude. By tradition, the alms are usually high-calorie products, but this is because the faithful care to bring taste and joy to their monks. They are also prohibited from eating anything from noon onwards, meaning they are taking in sweets on an empty stomach making it easier for the body to absorb the sugar. These consequences are especially worse for monks.

Professor Jongjit Angkatavanich, a nutritionist and dietician in Thailand, has been observing and studying the monks in order to find a solution to the growing health concern. She describes the issue as a “ticking time bomb”. One of the most shocking things Jongjit noticed with the monks is that though they are experiencing many serious health conditions, such as diabetes, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure and vision problems, they do not know much about the diseases. They do not understand why some toes and feet are amputated— a sad fact.

The cherry on top of the sundae is that the monks are not allowed to exercise. It is considered to be an act of vanity. On top of an unregulated diet, they are unable to take steps to be fit. Being able to navigate these conditions is a fundamental factor in finding a stable solution. 

Overweigh Populations Southeast Asia - WHO

Solutions Begin with Awareness:

Exercise and proper diet are the most promising options to tackle obesity and some Asian governments have begun introducing new policies to aid people in their wellness. The Malaysian government recently implemented a sugar tax which is reported to significantly decrease the consumption of sugar by moderating the accessibility  of sweetened beverages and soft drinks. 

Thailand plans to tackle its obesity problems with research and education. Somdet Phra Mahathirajarn, the Abbot of Yannawa Temple, has been in charge of implementing new procedures led by Jongjit’s observations in finding ways to locate loopholes in the restrictions. Healthier menu options are an important addition to the planning as monks receive one meal prepared by the temple before taking their alms.  

Jongjit started this journey eight years and reports that progress is visible but slow. And that is okay. In an interview, she stated: 

“We started small, but we have to spread [the message]. Now we call it ‘one temple, one hospital.’ And with this national health strategy, we will distribute our [educational] media to at least 11,000 hospitals in Thailand— from the main hospitals in the provinces to the primary care district hospitals, the roots of our community.”

Yannawa Temple has brought over medical teams to measure the health standing of every monk, taking note of blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass indexes. The data gets recorded into a database that will be used for research in ways to battle the epidemic, and at the same time, educate the youth about proper diet routines. 

Though this is a daunting task given the number of temples in Thailand, there is a determination to combat the problem and find a resolution. The goal is to teach not only the monks but the general public, about healthy living and proper nutrition so everybody can help each other.