Even after living in Chiang Mai for almost a year, I’m still no closer to cracking this particular chestnut. The handful of Thai women I regularly spend time with seem to have pretty high calorie diets full of saturated fats; eat relatively few vegetables; drink very sweet drinks and reasonably large amounts of alcohol; walk and exercise very little, if at all. My workmates and I eat lunch together on most days so I know what they eat — and they have diets that would make the average health-conscious woman in the West run for the nearest gym. Deep fried food, over-sweetened snacks, refined sugars and simple carbohydrates — not unknown elements of a normal diet here. Given this, I think I can actually claim to be living exactly like a local, since I have had a similar kind of lifestyle. Eeeek!
We all went for a full health check-up on Friday at a local hospital — and when I say full, I mean that I was poked and prodded in ways that I would prefer to not go into — and I actually felt incredibly relieved that I am somehow still in good health, aside from gaining some weight and getting little exercise. I’ve since resolved that I need to steer this ship back on course. So I finally broke the gym drought I’d been experiencing, even managing to break a sweat the other night.
Maybe this new-found need to be healthy was also triggered by a rather embarrassing moment recently where I went to a shop and found a dress I liked…and when I got Josh to give me his opinion, he said, “You do realise that this is the shop for big girls?” And yeah, it was. That’s totally what I am here. It brought me back to a moment not long after I moved here, where I was trying on XXL shorts and couldn’t get them past my hips, let alone my waist, and the only thing I was able to buy from that store was a great t-shirt that fit perfectly — because it was free size.
Another reason why I’ve been thinking about this issue is earlier this week we went to a seafood buffet. They’re rather fond of buffets here and my workmates and I get together outside of work every so often at these sort of places and it’s always great fun. We had raw prawns, deep-fried and battered prawns, barbecued prawns, raw prawns (my fave), boiled crab, curried crab — not to mention different kinds of squids and various other spicy soups. But half-way through the meal I had about reached my limit and a pained look would pass by my face every time my workmates ordered something else. But they kept going!
I’m kind of joking with this post really, because things here are probably not quite what they seem. I don’t have a good answer to the question of how so many stay so skinny, but it’s important to remember that skinniness does not equate to healthfulness at all. In fact, at the health check up, one of my workmates, a young 25 year guy who’s as thin as a rake, seemed to have a bit of a cholesterol issue.
Speaking as a public health person, I think the current lifestyle here, and other parts of Asia also undergoing rapid transformation in terms of wealth, is surely a ticking bomb. That is, if the consequences haven’t already taken hold. Most people in Vietnam I met seemed to have a waist-to-hip ratio higher than it should be as well, though the Vietnamese diet is arguably a lot healthier than the Thai one.
The rise in noncommunicable diseases associated with smoking, diet, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise, will only increase over the coming years, because if anything, south-east Asians have bodies that are even less able to tolerate these kinds of modern diets compared to Caucasians, for reasons which have been the subject of much research over the past decade. I just hope that Thai society takes this issue more seriously than they’re currently doing, and take more active health promotion measures to avert a disaster in the making.