Fragmentation and Wholeness: Health and Nutrition in Thailand 2
It seems I have inspired Khun Big C with my last submission, Health and Nutrition in Thailand, who has written an interesting criticism of what I had to say. Although reading the submission was a little hard, I enjoyed his way of putting forth his ideas which was in good spirit sprinkled with humour. So thank you for your submission Khun Big C. I would now like to respond to his writing with the same spirit.
Make no mistake about it, if you have made the permanent move to Thailand like myself, or are planning to make the permanent move, then your health and how you acquire your nutrition in Thailand is vitally important. And if your age is 35 and over, then it takes on a more serious level of urgency. Although I touched on the Thai-relevance aspect of this topic in my last submission (Health and Nutrition in Thailand), here are a few questions to consider. Is Thai food generally healthy? Is Thai food palatable for me? Is the street food healthy and hygienic? As a tropical country, what does Thailand have to offer with locally produced fruit and vegetables? Are organic foods and products easily available? Are there plenty of health shops in Thailand or are they scarce? What is the cost of food in general in Thailand?
Keeping these questions in the background, Khun C touches on a very important point which is basically about the changing ideas and thoughts related to health and nutrition taking place around the world and how many of the accepted notions are being critically challenged and eroded. What is really frustrating about this shift in thought is that there is so much conflicting information about health, dieting and nutrition that if feels like you need to make your way out of a labyrinthine maze to arrive at the ‘truth’.
At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, pharmaceutical companies in conjunction with doctors, health foundations like the Australian Heart Foundation (who not long ago gave some McDonald’s items like the Filet O Fish the tick of approval), governments and powerful food lobby groups have successfully told us that this is good for you and that is bad for you. The reality is that some of what they said is bad for us is actually good for us; and some of what they said is good for us is bad for us. The usual suspects are cholesterol and fats (especially saturated fats such as butter). I’m sure all we simply want to know is what on earth I need to eat and stay away from to keep healthy and not suffer from serious diseases. What follows is my philosophy on food and what I believe is the right approach to eating for a healthier lifestyle. I will then follow this with my general view and observations on Thai food and whether I believe Thai dishes are healthy or not.
What is interesting about this word ‘health’ is that if we were to look up the etymology of it, we would find that it is based on an Anglo Saxon word ‘hale’ which means ‘whole’. The English word ‘holy’ is also based on the same root as ‘whole’. According to British quantum physicist David Bohm “all of this indicates that man has sensed always that wholeness or integrity is an absolute necessity to make life worth living”. In other words, ‘being healthy is being whole’; ‘being whole is being healthy’. Anything which disrupts the whole, fragments it and breaks it up shattering it to fragments jeopardizes their health. So what does all of this have to do with food and nutrition then?
Well I’m sure we have all heard the term ‘whole foods’ and this is where I believe the key is to a healthy diet. Without side-tracking too much, dieting only makes up one component of our health and since this submission is limiting itself to food and nutrition, we need not worry ourselves of the other vitally important components for our health just yet. Back to whole foods, we can substitute the adage ‘being healthy is being whole’; ‘being whole is being healthy’ with ‘eating healthy is eating whole’; ‘eating whole is eating healthy’. Just as anything which disrupts and fragments the whole puts our health in jeopardy, disrupting and fragmenting the whole food also jeopardizes the health promoting properties of the food.
Unfortunately, fragmentation whether we are aware or not, is a modern plague that has ‘infected’ the minds of millions of people around the world. Many aspects of our lives have been fragmented into a number of separate compartments depending on our differing desires, aims, ambitions, loyalties and psychological characteristics. Pursuing a career, having a family, enjoying social activities and expressing our creativity may constitute some of the fragmented compartments of our lives. Our identities might be split into several components including a mixture of race, religion and nationality. We also view society in split compartments. It is common to hear of the economic sector, education sector, health sector, political sector etc. which are all components of society. The world on the other hand has also been split into numerous nation-states each with its own border demarcating themselves from others. Basically, it has become common to think of our lives, society and the world we inhabit composed of split and fragmented compartments. Looking at any component or fragment and thinking that that fragment is objective reality in and of itself is delusional and being blind to the whole which that fragment is a part of.
Foods and nutrition are no exception to this mode of thought and approach falling victim to this modern plague. All one has to do to verify this is stroll to the supermarket and look at all the ‘whole’ foods they have ‘disrupted’ and ‘fragmented’. Some examples include, Light Milk, Skim Milk, Homogenized Milk, reduced fat cheese, low fat cottage cheese, 0% Fat yogurt, low fat yogurt, 0% cholesterol so on and so forth. Food companies ‘play’ with the wholeness of the food and shatter its integrity by reducing this or removing it completely. By disrupting the foods wholeness, they have jeopardized the foods health promoting properties. Why are they playing around with the foods wholeness? Again it’s because of the fragmentation disease that has affected the mode of thought of the ‘experts’.
These ‘experts’ who carry legitimacy because they’ve been slapped with the ‘scientist’ tag come up with hypotheses such as saturated fats are bad for your heart which increases cholesterol or cholesterol causes heart attacks and with weak or flimsy evidence at best, suddenly an entire chorus is singing in tune with these ‘experts’ and people are led to believe that saturated fats are evil which must be avoided at all costs. Butter and Coconut Oil are big no no’s because they are high in saturated fat. Cholesterol must be reduced to dangerously low levels which can only be achieved with drugs. I wonder who makes those cholesterol reducing drugs and how much money they make. Then there’s, natural whole foods like eggs which are demonized because they contain cholesterol so then eggs for breakfast are off the menu and in comes these salty cereals full of sugar. Let’s not forget to demonize whole milk while we’re at it. That’s because whole milk is full of those nasty fats which lead to higher cholesterol levels.
Basically, when something like saturated fats gets beaten to a pulp, attention then turns to the natural whole foods which contain saturated fats and from the whole food, that one thing (saturated fats) is nit-picked and the entire food is labelled as harmful or dangerous. It is the typical fragmentary, shatter the ‘whole’, mode of thought and approach in action. We could understand the fear of the food companies and why they would ‘play’ with the whole food by reducing or taking out a natural property of the food such as fats. They are concerned that people would cease buying their products because consumers have been gripped with fear from the fats and cholesterol found in the foods so to protect their profits and alleviate the fears of the masses; they have no qualms meddling with the wholeness of their products.
This is my gripe with Khun Big C. He validates his own argument using exactly the same ‘nit-pick’, fragmentary approach those he is criticising use. Instead of saturated fats and cholesterol being put under the spotlight, he has put omega 6, carbohydrates and fructose under the spotlight. From the whole food, he has nit-picked these and demonized them thus wanting us to avoid whole foods like rice and fruits. Again, it’s the whole food that has been tried and found guilty just because it has a component which may be detrimental to our health. This sort of fragmentary mode of thought and approach must be ‘cured’ first. If this is not ‘cured’, then this modern plague will take its toll on us and I believe it already has.
I find this sort of fragmentary mode of thought and approach an extreme approach. Anything in its extreme form is going to harm you. On the other hand, anything that is balanced or kept in its right measure is going to benefit you. Interestingly, this notion of measure and keeping everything in its right measure has been seen as vital to health for the Ancient Greeks. They believed that anything which went beyond the proper measure of things resulted in human suffering. What this means is that if the ‘inner measure’ of the individual was out of harmony then it is bound to lose its reliability and break into fragments.
Etymologically, the Latin word ‘mederi’ meaning ‘to cure’ (where the word medicine comes from) is based on the root meaning ‘to measure’. The word moderation which reflects one of the prime ancient notions of virtue also contains the same root meaning ‘to measure’. The word meditation also possesses the same root ‘to measure’. Therefore, what we should try to aim for is to keep food in its ‘measured’ state which is in its whole form.
This is precisely why I put a lot of emphasis on whole foods because they have been ‘given’ the correct ‘measure’ meaning they have the correct mixture of nutrients to supply you with. For example, when you drink whole milk, it contains a certain amount of macro and micro nutrients at a specific ‘measure’. When you drink milk as it is wholly, then all of those macro and micro nutrients work synergistically within your body allowing you to soak in all of those vital nutrients. But when you ‘play’ with it and take out a component of the milk like its fat content thus disrupting its ‘right measure’, the consequences may be less, if not, ineffective or possibly harmful.
That’s why I always tell my friends to stick with the original whole form of whatever you’re eating or drinking. Whole Milk (unhomogenized), full fat yogurt, full fat cheese, fish, turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, nuts, brown rice, red rice, black rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, butter, barley, oats, quinoa, millet, honey, coconut oil, olive oil, sesame seeds and anything that is in its original state. A bit of butter a day, an egg or two or three with the yolk IS NOT GOING TO KILL YOU. On the contrary, it’s going to benefit you immensely. I am not saying eat 8 eggs a day or include half a packet of butter when cooking or 5 tablespoons of coconut oil or honey at one sitting. Everything in moderation is the key here. Forget about fruits being dangerous or carbs causing inflammation thus completely avoiding fruits and carbs which are taking things to the extreme. I would rather point at alcohol causing serious damage to our liver than fructose from fresh fruit. A few pieces of fruit and a cup of red rice can only be beneficial for you. Anything processed or industrialized is what should be kept at bay. Anything natural and whole should be consumed.
Coming back to Thailand, I have now spent almost a year here and have only in the last 3 to 4 months paid serious attention to my dieting but the results have been extraordinary for me. I have managed to drop my weight within the ideal BMI range and more importantly, have maintained that weight and find it very easy to maintain. Back in Sydney, I used to always fluctuate severely because I was yo-yo dieting. Now the best part of all this is that from time to time, I can indulge in a bit of junk food here and there and drink to my desires liking without gaining the weight. Basically, I believe living in Thailand provides an excellent opportunity to get your health back in order which can probably be said about anywhere you live. However Thailand like other tropical countries offers advantages which are not easily found in highly industrialized and developed countries like Australia.
Firstly, a large portion of Thailand makes a living from the land. Although it is rapidly industrializing, the majority of the country still revolves around its agriculture producing primarily rice. It’s also fair to say that many foods besides rice are also locally produced. The first advantage of this situation is that it reduces the cost of food. Rather than depend on imports, having a food locally grown and then taken to the market for selling is going to be way cheaper than having the same food imported. The second advantage is that the food is fresher as it only travels from the farm to the city to be sold as opposed to imported foods which loses many of its freshness due to the time it takes for it to arrive here. The third advantage is the abundance of tropical fruits that are available here due to the climate. Some of these fruits are so nutritionally dense that avoiding them is simply taking an extreme position. For example, the red dragon fruit, mangosteens and coconuts are in my opinion, ‘super foods’ which must be eaten for their health promoting properties. Again, I’m not saying eat these fruits day in day out all day long. Just include them in your diet and regularly consume a little of each. Mix it up and enjoy the variety provided by this country with jackfruits, lychees or long gong’s.
As for Thai dishes in general, I have my reservations about them and believe many Thai dishes if consumed on a daily basis is going to cause health problems which is why I only occasionally ‘indulge’ in Thai foods. The first issue I have with Thai dishes is with the white rice that is eaten at every meal throughout the day. Rice is a ‘whole’ grain which in its ‘whole’ state is very healthy for you. To get the rice into its white colour involves ‘meddling’ with the ‘whole’ grain which has been polished down until just the endosperm is left. The polishing process removes the bulk of the nutrients found in the outer layers and what you’re left with is essentially a ‘starch bomb’. White rice has a very high glycaemic index and diabetics should consume as little as possible.
But just because white rice isn’t as nutritious as the brown, red or black variety, it doesn’t mean I completely avoid it. From time to time, if I’m out at a Thai restaurant, I will have some. If I am offered it at a Thai party (white rice is unavoidable), I will have some. However, I will have only a little and eat it occasionally. Most of the time, it is brown, red and black rice for me. In addition, although getting the rice into its white colour involves ‘tampering’ with the ‘whole’, I would much rather eat this as opposed to Burger King, Hungry Jacks or KFC because it is ‘closer’ to a whole food as opposed to the processed garbage found in fast food chains.
Other than white rice, Thais love noodles mixed with a lot of sauces and spices. This brings us to the issue of whether Thai foods are palatable because I have never liked noodles and when I see a bowl of noodles swimming in a mixture of sauces and spices, instinctively I am turned off. As for its nutritional value, I honestly don’t know much about them but my instincts tell me they are not very nutritious. Many other dishes which ‘swim’ in oil also turns me off.
I have come up with a simple solution to transform Thai dishes which I like into healthier ones. For example, I love stir fried rice with basil but rather than use white rice, I use red, black or brown. If I have some, I replace the rice with quinoa or pearled barley. Instead of the usual refined soya bean oil, I use coconut oil. As for Som Tum salad, Tom Yum Gung and Gaeng Kheo Whan soup, I enjoy them very much but again, I’ll alter it slightly to give it a healthier edge like reducing the amount of sugar, salt and again use coconut oil. Little alterations like this turns a Thai dish into a healthier meal.
Breakfast is another topic I want to touch on. I can’t stress the importance of it. It is so important that it either makes you or breaks you. That’s how important it is. It has been one of the main reasons for my weight loss. Before I leave my house in Sukhothai, no matter what, I make sure I have a big breakfast. Here is what I typically have for breakfast:
3 whole eggs
Approx. 2 tablespoons of coconut oil
1 heaped teaspoon of sour cream (Alli brand)
1 big clove of garlic (finely chopped and diced)
1 shallot (spring onion)
I put all of that into a saucepan and whisk it up and constantly stir it on low heat until it slightly solidifies.
While I’m busy with the eggs, there would be a grill pan with tomatoes and capsicum cooking on a layer of virgin olive oil which again is not overcooked. I’ll put the eggs and veges on a plate with 2 slices of toast. Along with that I’ll have my black tea with coconut sap sugar and thinly sliced ginger. After the plate has been gobbled up, I’ll have a heaped teaspoon of organic black sesame paste and a teaspoon of honey. Sometimes I’ll change the organic black sesame paste with a pure almond spread or have a handful of nuts. Usually, this breakfast keeps me full well into lunch time and if I get peckish before lunch, then I’ll have a handful of nuts. A Thai breakfast on the other hand usually consists of nothing as most Thais I know skip breakfast. When they do, it’s something similar to a dinner meal. Thais really do have bad eating habits.
In conclusion, here is the message I am promoting. Balance is the key here. Forget all the extreme approaches and views about dieting and nutrition. Forget all the fad diets like the Atkins diet, detox diet, vegetarianism (unless it is part of your beliefs which I respect), Cookie diet, Hacker’s diet, Body for Life, Nutrisystems Diet, Breatharian diet, Dukan diet, Stillman diet etc. Just stick to a diet based on whole foods, mix it up and have a wide variety, minimise your ‘junk’ food intake (meaning from time to time, it’s ok to have some) and reduce or completely get rid of alcohol. As we’re in Thailand, finding whole foods is very easy and cheap. Minimising or quitting alcohol on the other hand is very hard but it must be done for the sake of our health. Here’s a toast from me to your health.
Good stuff and hopefully it gets some people thinking. There does rather seem to be less concern about one's health amongst expats in Thailand than back in our home countries. I think going heavy on vegetables and light on meats while trying to do your best to minimise or even eliminate dairy if you can is the way to go.