Thailand is a country well known for its cuisine. Globally extolled as sophisticated and spiritual, the country has long produced some of the World’s most flavorful and, with its traditional use of vegetables and brown rice, nutritious food.
However, a growing trend in Thailand’s domestic food production has the Thai Ministry of Health concerned. Apparently, the consumption of cheap, processed sugar has been on the rise among Thailand’s population. 7-11 is now the nation’s most prevalent store, offering a variety of junk foods ranging from squid-flavored potato chips to sugar-loaded energy drinks around the clock.
Market vendors, too, are using an increasing amount of unhealthy, processed sugar in their food products.
“It’s almost impossible to add too much sugar,” said Waiwong Wittayakun, owner of a popular pad thai stand in Bangkok’s On Nut market. “Thai people, we like it sweet.”
Unfortunately, this preference for sweetness is partly responsible for Thailand’s fastest growing disease: diabetes. According to Wittaya Kaewparadai, Thailand’s Minister of Public Health, more than 3 million people in Thailand are now living with diabetes. This computes to nearly one in 10 Thais, surpassing even America’s rate of one in 12.
Worse still is the fact that many Thai grade schools serve processed meals. “The kids turn into adults who are addicted to sweet food. And they get fat because no one plays in the fields anymore,” said Napaporn Sowattanangoon, a diabetes specialist with Thailand’s Mahidol University.
Adults, too, are living more sedentary lifestyles. Developing countries such as Thailand, China, and India are seeing the fastest growing diabetes rate, according to InterAsia, a research collaboration between American, Chinese, and Thai universities, in part because of newfound prosperity. Although it improves the economic wellbeing of many people, emerging opulence leads to more desk jobs, higher consumption of industrially produced food, and less healthy behavior.
“Traditionally, our food is supposed to have a balance of sugar,” said Napaporn. “You’re supposed to taste sweetness balanced with spice, sourness, and other flavors. Now, cooks just go overboard with sugar. It’s like they don’t even care about the dangers.”
The dangers, though, are substantial. According to the International Diabetes Federation, diabetes is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke, and amputation.
“It is estimated that 50,000 – 60,000 of people living with diabetes in Thailand will develop blur vision or blindness,” said Health Minister Kaewparadai.
Diabetes in Thailand is further complicated by a lack of awareness among diabetics. The disease translates from Thai as “sweet urine disease,” which is often self-diagnosed when villagers notice ants gathering around their outdoor toilets.
Some diabetic Thais also choose to ignore the disease. Many attribute their condition to karma, blaming the illness on misdeeds from past lives. Others recite their Buddhist acceptance of illness and death, choosing instead to indulge in sweet foods.
Because of this, researchers have advised government doctors to use more Buddhist logic to help direct Thais away from poor diets, citing monks who lower blood pressure by meditating and avoiding large meals.
Thailand’s Ministry of Health has also taken steps to combat the disease. The agency has embarked on a “Khon Thai Rai Pung” campaign to raise awareness about obesity and to encourage Thai people to reduce their weight by engaging in more physical activities. The government has also enlisted the help of foreign nations such as the United States.
“In cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration, we are opening pesticides-free markets like Sam Yan Market, where there is an officer from the FDA to check every entrepreneur and certify quality of food product,” Public Health Minister Wittaya said.
“We have to educate Thai people to prevent getting diabetes by reducing the risk and modifying lifestyles and consumption behaviors.”