BANGKOK – Every morning at dawn, the food is dished out to Thailand’s monks in abundance: donations of sticky rice, cakes, noodles, sweet pudding, dumplings, shop-bought snacks and Thai desserts coated with condensed milk and coconut cream.
Yet the tradition of giving food, known as alms, to the monks every morning as a way to accumulate karma for this life and the next has precipitated an obesity crisis amongst the clergy.
Contrary to the well-known depiction of a Buddha as a man with a vast round belly and several chins – taken from the Chinese folklore of an eccentric 10th century monk – until recently the 300,000 monks in Thailand have traditionally kept trim and healthy by fasting after midday.
While they still fast, the food and drinks they consume every morning is so unhealthy the number of overweight and unhealthy monks now exceeds the national average, with a 45% rate of obesity, 6.5% rate of diabetes and extremely high rates of heart disease and high cholesterol.
Modern lifestyles and high sugar foods have been blamed. Thailand is already one of the fattest countries in Asia, second only to neighbouring Malaysia. Monks have no choice but to eat the food that is donated, and it is traditional for people to donate their favourite foods, or the favourite foods of their dead relatives, meaning that puddings and sweets feature heavily in monks’ diets.
Senior members of the Sangha – the Buddhist council – as well as academics and the Thai government have come together in an attempt to solve the obesity crisis as a matter of urgency after it was described as a “ticking time bomb” and have drawn up a mandatory Heath Charter For Monks, which was slowlrolled at temples across Thailand this year.
Dr Supreda Adulyanon, CEO of ThaiHealth, the government health agency, said the sugary drinks, one of the only things they are allowed after midday, were a major contributor to the expanding waistlines of monks.
“Of course it’s related to their unhealthy habits. For example 43% are smokers and only 44% that do exercise three times a week which means the majority doesn’t do enough exercise.”
Thai health funded a “healthy monk, healthy nutrition” project in 2017 that helped a selection of monks from across the country slim down. It created special belts for the monks’ waists to help them monitor when their weight went up or down, trained chefs in the temples how to cook healthily, and published healthy recipe pamphlets to hand out in the community encouraging people cook and donate healthier food.
“But we have to understand their circumstances, that they have to consume what they are given – they cannot select the food themselves,” Adulyanon said.
Monks often live an often unhealthily sedentary lifestyle but exercise is a particularly sensitive subject. They must not be seen to be vain, and also cannot wear shoes, two factors that make working out and fitness something of a spiritual minefield. A recent article that went viral in Thailand depicted a monk who was being pursued by the Buddhist authorities for the “earthly sin” of being too ripped after he posted photo of his muscly six-pack online.
Phra Promwachirayan, the abbot of Yannawa temple and chair of public welfare for the Sangha supreme council of Thailand, who has been leading the charge for monks to change their unhealthy ways, admitted exercise was “complicated” for monks but “not impossible”.
“Monks should exercise but it is difficult for us,” he said. “You can exercise to promote your health but not to make your body muscly like a boxer. You cannot do weight lifting and you cannot jog, that is not proper, only fast walking or maybe a walking meditation. Yoga can also be fine, but not in public.
“A treadmill is OK,” added Promwachirayan. “But only a flat one and only indoors.”
By Navaon Siradapuvadol and Hannah Ellis-Petersen