Health and Nutrition in Thailand
I feel that many foreigners who have made the permanent move to Thailand neglect their health and jeopardize their well-being. Initially, when I relocated to Thailand, I too was prone to a lifestyle and diet which was detrimental to my health. However, over the past few months, I have re-developed a keen interest in health and nutrition and have made some transformations to my diet that has resulted in tremendous health benefits and would like to share these simple, yet extremely beneficial changes with you.
Let me begin by being straightforward and say that in my opinion, Thai foods and Thai dieting is generally unhealthy. This is based on various observations. Firstly, I am married to a Thai and have been living in her village for almost a year and have had ample opportunity to witness what her relatives and extended family eat and drink. I also work as an English teacher here in Sukhothai and again have constantly witnessed what the teachers and students eat on a daily basis. The students’ diet is so bad that it has prompted me to intervene and prepare a healthy eating guideline for all the students and their parents. Thankfully the director and the other teachers share my concern. Another interesting observation is when I go to Big C and walk past the oils section. There is one part of the oils section that is always half to three quarters empty with plenty of boxes in front of that section for refilling. When I check the price of that oil, it is the cheapest of the entire range but one of the unhealthiest. That oil is refined soya bean and you can be quite sure that most restaurants and street food vendors use this oil for their cooking. All my extended Thai family use this oil and nothing else. One final observation is the issue of weight. Sukhothai is full of fat and obese adults and children some of whom are my extended family members while others are teachers I work with and students I teach. What follows are the changes and additions I have made to my diet.
A Word on Rice
First thing I changed with my diet was getting rid of white rice. White rice is not cooked in my home anymore. It’s either red or black rice or a combination of red, black and brown. Black rice in particular is very potent in its nutritional value containing an abundance of anthocyanin antioxidants. By changing the colour of the rice, I am now eating much less and feeling full for a longer time which is due to the high fibre content of the rice. In addition, because black, red and brown rice are full of complex carbs, the sugars are released slowly which stabilizes blood sugar levels. This makes it ideal for diabetics or those who are at risk of contracting diabetes like me due to my family history. Sometimes I replace rice with pearled barley which again is abundant in fibre and is very easy to cook.
Also, I make an effort to purchase organic rice. I have seen my wife’s aunts many times out in the rice fields with what looks like a cylindrical backpack with a hose and nozzle attached to it. They walk up and down the rice fields spraying pesticides from that backpack. After spraying pesticide all day, they are feeling and looking ill and sometimes vomit even though they cover their entire face for protection.
For optimum health, owning a juice machine is a must. I have only recently discovered how a juice machine can have immense positive health benefits. There are two great advantages to owning a juice machine. The first is that it assists you in meeting your daily required servings of fruit and vegetables quickly and efficiently. The second is that it enables you to ‘drink’ parts of a fruit or vegetable which in its original state is inedible or unpalatable but it is these parts that contain the most concentrated vitamins and minerals. For example, the part of a watermelon which is the most nutritionally dense is the rind, the white flesh just under the skin and is usually discarded when eating watermelon. With a juice machine, you’re able to throw the skin, rind, flesh and seeds altogether enabling you to soak in all of those beneficial vitamins and minerals. I’ve only juiced carrots as vegetables and my favourite combos are cantaloupe and carrot with ginger, apple and carrot with or without ginger, watermelon and apple, cantaloupe on its own and watermelon on its own. Once the juicing is complete, I add it into a blender and add crushed ice and enjoy a delicious and healthy smoothie.
Yogurt has been a staple part of my diet throughout my life. About a year ago, when I moved here, I really missed Yogurt for a while but found a good quality yogurt when I was living in Bangkok in Tops Market by the brand name of Yolida. Here in Sukhothai however, they don’t have that brand in Big C and all the other yogurts are full of sugar, artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Now, I make my own yogurt at home and it is so easy and cheap to make but more importantly, it’s super healthy with all those beneficial live active bacteria. All you need is a saucepan, full cream milk and Yolida yogurt (or any plain yogurt that has active live cultures) as a starter and that’s it. Here’s how you make it:
You need a medium to large sized saucepan (preferably stainless steel). Fill it with 2 litres of full cream milk, heat it on high until it reaches boiling point constantly stirring. Once it has reached boiling point, take it off the heat and let it cool for an hour so. You need to let it cool enough to be able to stick the tip of your (clean) finger into the milk and count to 10 without it burning. Once you’re able to do that, get 2 tablespoons full of Yolida yogurt, put it in a small bowl, then get some of the warm milk and mix it with the yogurt in the bowl. Then pour it into the whole saucepan, put the lid on and cover it with a blanket to ferment from anywhere between 3 to 8 hours. If you like it sweet then 3 to 4 hours is fine. If you prefer it a bit sour then 6 to 8 hours. I find 5 hours is perfect for me. After this, remove the blanket and just put the entire saucepan into the fridge and let it cool overnight. The next day you have fresh homemade yogurt ready to eat.
Honey and Coconut Sap/Coconut Palm Sugar
It’s been a while since I’ve had white or brown table sugar. I have replaced sugar with honey and coconut sap sugar. The honey I am talking about is not the supermarket variety which has been pasteurized thereby killing many of the beneficial enzymes, pollen and antibacterial properties that are found in honey. Actually, one of the most beneficial honeys in the world comes from New Zealand and is called Manuka Honey but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any here in Thailand. If you do find some in Thailand, let me know. In the meantime, I have a friend whose family produces honey from the Longong tree in Chiang Rai and they don’t pasteurize their honey. They have it delivered to me whenever I need honey. 2-3 teaspoons a day on an empty stomach half an hour before meals is enough for me. When I drink tea, I also sweeten it with honey. Recently however, I have read about coconut sap sugar made from the sap of the coconut obviously. It has a GI of only 34 which is super low and contains and abundance of vitamins and minerals especially amino acids. It is so delicious and sweet which I use to sweeten my tea these days. Ditch white or brown table sugar and replace it with natural sweeteners like raw organic, unheated, unfiltered honey or coconut sap sugar. Don’t overdo both though.
The health benefits of coconut oil have started being recognized not only by consumers of health foods but the scientific community as well. This is one of the most nutritionally dense oils you could ever find. The list of the benefits of coconut oil is too long to list here. If you were to research it, you would come across terms like Medium Chain Fatty Acids, Lauric Acid, Weight Loss, increase in good cholesterol and reduction in bad cholesterol and help with Alzheimer’s sufferers. Just yesterday at Central Plaza in Phitsanulok, I had myself weighed and couldn’t believe I am in the normal range of my BMI. I have lost so much weight that all the pants I own which didn’t fit me before are falling off my hips and everything I wear fits and looks much better as well. I strongly believe incorporating Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Coconut Oil has played a vital role in my weight reduction. This oil is expensive even here in Thailand. In some instances, it’s even more expensive than Australia. But for it's health benefits and the incomparable taste it adds to dishes, it’s worth forking out the extra baht for this ‘superfood’. I usually take 2 to 3 teaspoons a day. On the days I have cooked food with coconut oil, I don’t take the teaspoons. Here’s an easy tip. Scrambled eggs with this oil are so tasty you could be asking yourself why I haven’t discovered this earlier.
Nuts and Seeds
Raw nuts and seeds like Walnuts, Almonds, Cashews, Pistachios, Pumpkin Seeds and Sunflower seeds are part of what I snack on. Again, though nuts and seeds are very high in fat, they are of the good kind which is good for your heart and brain. Consistently eaten, they even have a positive effect on your sex life. Only a handful is enough for their immense benefits. Plus it helps keep you full longer as well. Make sure you buy the raw variety and stay away from the roasted, flavoured and salted variety.
Another food that is consistently rated in the top 10 lists of healthiest foods. There are so many advantages to eating beans from its high fibre content (both soluble and insoluble), to protein and carbs. Best of all, they are very cheap and they make an excellent side to rice or part of a salad. I prefer red Kidney beans, Black Beans and Lima Beans. All beans are very healthy however. Only downside is they take a bit of time to cook as they need to be soaked overnight and I don’t have a pressure cooker. Stay away from the canned variety which is very high in salt.
Onions, Shallots and Garlic
I eat so much of these consistently and maybe because of that reason, I haven’t been sick in ages. Before my diet transformation, I used to suffer from constant irritating hay fever, diarrhoea, throat infections and the common cold but I believe eating a lot of raw onions, shallots and garlic has helped me keep away from being sick. When I first started eating a whole lot of these, I couldn’t believe the amount of phlegm I was coughing up which made me think it was somehow cleaning or flushing out filth in my lungs. I nearly always include onions and yogurt as a side with whatever meal I am eating. I absolutely love them.
Opportunity seldom knocks twice
Those of us who have made the permanent or long term move to Thailand have a great opportunity to improve our health. Because it is a tropical country, it is full of wonderful, tasty and very healthy fruits such as Mangosteen, Jackfruit, Dragon Fruit and my favourite, Coconuts. In addition, these fruits are ridiculously cheap compared to Australia. For example, the last time my wife was in Melbourne which was about a month ago, she told me Mangosteens were selling at a dollar a piece whereas you can get a whole kilo for less than a dollar here.
Most guys, including me at one stage, neglect our health for many reasons which may include bad habits like smoking and drinking, eating too many fast foods due to not having enough time or a kitchen to cook in, letting our wives or girlfriends cook for us and not sleeping early and missing out on vital sleep. All of the dieting changes I have outlined above require a change of lifestyle. It isn’t easy but when our health is at stake here, I believe it’s worth the effort. Simple things like cooking more at home (if you don’t know how to cook then learn because it’s easy), eating whole natural foods, staying away from simple sugars, snacking healthier and going to bed early will have a massive positive impact on your health from losing weight to simply feeling better and energetic. If you haven’t got a kitchen, then go and buy a rice cooker, a small gas stove, and a few pots and pans rather than eat outside.
One last point I would like to make is related to exercise. Most people who decide to make a change to better their health for an unknown reason put more emphasis on exercise than dieting. In my humble opinion, dieting is way more important than exercising. Exercising by itself has negligible effects on health. Dieting by itself on the other hand has immeasurable benefits. However, combining the two is the best for your health overall. But if you can’t do them both for whatever reason, THEN PUT YOUR EMPHASIS ON DIETING.
It is amazing how many Westerners in Thailand neglect their health. I used to think expats in Thailand would lose weight, but it seems that more put on weight and live their life in a way that will reduce their time on earth.
As far as diet goes, I try and eat as much fruit and as many vegetables as I can. Like you, I also snack on nuts and raisins. I love salami but have given it up. I prefer fish over meat but when I do eat meat I only eat that which is, quite literally, hacked directly off the beast. Processed meat is all bad, bad news.
Life is too good to risk curtailing one's time by self-abuse through over-eating, eating the wrong foods or a bad diet.