They have to eat the alms they are given, even when they are fattening
The rules governing what and when Thailand’s Buddhist monks eat are strict. They must rely solely on alms from the faithful and must consume them before noon each day. Early each morning they pour out of temples in bright orange robes, ready to collect offerings. They are not supposed to say what they most like or be picky. Eager believers often hand out rich meals or sugary snacks in an effort to please. Some monks also resort to sweet drinks during the long afternoon fast. All this has left many monks’ bellies as round as their begging bowls. The National Health Commission Office reckons that about half of Thailand’s 349,000-odd monks are either overweight or obese.
Almost two years ago a Health Charter appeared, encouraging monks and those who feed them to think more about diet and exercise. Prayer and meditation do not burn many calories, but monks are not supposed to become fitness freaks either. (In fact, they are supposed to find a “middle way” in all things between indulgence and self-mortification.) Working out appropriate physical activities, such as walking and cleaning the temple, has been part of the health push. For the past year the Ministry of Public Health has also been offering monks nutritional advice.
Jongjit Angkatavanich of Chulalongkorn University is trying to help monks shift weight. She has studied their cholesterol levels and the prevalence of diabetes and other maladies from which the portly suffer. One useful tool she developed was a belt monks could use to measure the growth or contraction of their bellies. She says that hospitals are being paired with temples to keep an eye on the state of health education within them. Booklets are also being distributed to those who cook for monks, steering them away from indulgent recipes and towards brown rice and vegetables.
The country as a whole would benefit from such tips. Thailand is one of the plumpest places in Asia. According to research published in 2017 by the Asian Development Bank Institute, a think-tank, 33% of men and 43% of women are obese. The problem has grown as the country has become richer. Of course, it does not help that for many foreigners and locals alike, a good Thai meal is close to nirvana.