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Fat in Thailand: Thai-a-betes epidemic

A richer Thailand, and a cultural love of sugar, sparks a health problem.

“Thai people, especially the elderly, have trouble accepting a disease that won’t let them eat all the foods they want,” Napaporn said. “By the time the doctor tries to help, it’s too late. They have wounds on their bodies that won’t even heal.”

Thai doctors often ask diabetics to forgo starchy white rice, essential as oxygen in the minds of many Thais. In lieu of unpleasant diet change, TV infomercials offer herbal quick cure-alls. A recent commercial for Dr. Chula’s “Thai-Chinese-Lao Herbs” features the testimonial of Sod Suchuen, an elderly Thai diabetic woman, who professes that “after drinking two or three pots, my weight shot up from 44 to 49 kilos!”

Thailand’s Ministry of Health, as part of its “Paunchless Thais” weight-loss campaign, has warned the public that Type-2 diabetes can bring on blindness, infirmity and death. Government doctors should use more Buddhist logic to help steer Thais away from poor diets, Napaporn said.

She’s currently studying how Buddhist principles of resisting gluttony play to diabetic Thais, especially the elderly who say their religion has taught them to “accept illness” and eat as they please. Physicians, she said, should inspire patients to imitate monks, who lower blood pressure by meditating and avoid eating large meals.

Diabetics might also consider staying far away from Bangkok’s On Nut market around sundown. That’s when Jay Muay’s wok is at its busiest and the smell of simmering scallions and caramelizing sugar attracts queues that choke the sidewalk.

“The sugar? We use a lot to make it come out really sweet, really sour,” Waiwong said. “It might look like a lot, but that’s how much you have to add to keep them coming back.”