Thailand’s National Health Commission Office says there are nearly 349,000 monks in Thailand, and almost half are considered overweight or obese.
There are several factors, but it largely centers around the morning routine — and the changing nature of the offerings placed into the monk’s pails.
The monks aren’t able to control their own diet — it’s at the mercy of the offerings they receive each morning. Traditionally, those alms are calorie-rich foods, either processed or homemade — with the Buddhist faithful wanting to offer something of high value and taste.
The monks are also forbidden from eating anything after 12 p.m., having only one or two meals a day between the hours of 6 a.m. and noon. This means it’s hard for monks to change their diet.
Professor Jongjit Angkatavanich, a pharmacist, dietician, and nutritionist who has been studying the health of Thailand’s monks for the past eight years, describes the situation as a “ticking time bomb.”
“When we look at the obesity rate, it’s kind of like the first landmark that we used as an indicator,” Jongjit said.
Diabetes, High Blood Pressure
The monks are experiencing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, eye issues and osteoarthritis in knees, but they know very little about them.
For example, one of the most shocking things Jongjit has seen is monks with amputated toes and feet because of diabetes, but the monks had no knowledge of the condition — many had never even heard of diabetes.
Obesity rates among Thailand’s monks are higher than the wider population — 48% of them are obese compared to 39% of the Thai male population, according to Jongjit’s research. While people might think the monks are simply eating more, Jongjit said that isn’t the case. The monks consume 150 less calories than Thai men.
So what’s happening to Thailand’s monks?
“After midday, they have to rely on a drink or beverage,” Jongjit explained. “It has changed over time, from the ancient time — right now, it is a soda, a soft drink, a sweetened beverage.”
Sugary Drinks and Soda Pop
What’s more, she said, is the monks often consume the sugary drinks on an empty stomach. “The sugar in the liquid is absorbed faster,” she said. “It means the effect or consequence of the added sugar is even worse for a monk.”
To complicate matters even further, the monks aren’t supposed to exercise — it’s considered vain. Navigating those restrictions is an important part of the long-term solution.
Somdet Phra Mahathirajarn is the Abbot of Yannawa temple — its highest-ranking monk. He’s been leading the charge in implementing changes suggested by Jongjit and her team. Including finding a way around the exercise restrictions and healthier menu options for the novice monks’ midday meal. As the novices get one meal prepared by the temple before noon in addition to the morning alms.
Tracking Novice Monks Health
Changing Eating Habits and Diet