Obesity is no longer limited to the United States or other developed countries. Rates of obesity are increasing among developing countries as well. In Thailand, for example, one study shows that as many as 18% of adolescents are overweight or at risk for overweight. While this percentage is still lower than the U.S. rate of 50%, Thailand and other developing countries are catching up as they adopt a Western lifestyle.
Spending summer after summer visiting relatives in Thailand as I was growing up, I have observed a definite change in lifestyle, work demands, and environmental influences. One striking change is the amount of physical activity. People spend more time in cars and less time walking. Sedentary activities are also more prevalent. More jobs require work to be performed while sitting in front of a computer. More people are also able to afford luxuries like cable television that provide more programs which entices people to spend more time watching television or computer games and game consoles that make people less likely to pursue more physically demanding activities.
The availability of food has also changed. As a child, I would accompany my grandmother to a fresh market which offered a multitude of fresh meat, seafood, and produce. There was a limited variety of snack foods which all were packaged in what one would consider to be small portions by American standards. While these markets still exist, large modern supermarkets are becoming more popular. These supermarkets all have floor space devoted to aisles of prepared foods and snacks such as cookies, chips, and sweets, making food items of less nutritional value previously available in limited quantities now easily accessible.
Portion sizes are increasing. Packaging for snack items in grocery stores is showing up as family size bags. During my last few trips back to Thailand, I was able to purchase my favorite brand of chip now as a large grab bag instead of the just single serving bag available when I was little. The growing portion sizes can be seen in restaurants as well. This change in portion sizes is detrimental not just in terms of the amount of food consumed but also the type of food. Traditional Thai meals typically have several dishes allowing for a balanced diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood. Larger portion sizes may prompt the ordering of fewer dishes limiting the variety and nutritional content of the meal.
Eating out is becoming the norm. People are busier with more families living on dual incomes. With both parents working, there is usually little time to prepare meals at home. Fast food and take out restaurants are increasingly popular. Catering companies that deliver meals daily or a few times a week are thriving. Such meals are often less healthy than home-cooked dinners.
The one saving grace that I hope does not disappear is the abundance of street vendors selling fresh fruit. However, they are facing stiff competition from the mini-mart selling candy bars and cookies down the street. While modern life in Thailand and other developing countries is easier in many ways, these changes are coming with the challenges of the obesity epidemic.
Published On: November 27, 2007