The Silent Horror That's Afflicting Thai Monks
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
No one is immune to this epidemic.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
At the crack of dawn, a newly ordained monk has a little bit less pep in his step than usual. His daily stroll around the Phra Dhammakaya temple in Thailand is only a mile or two. But today, hauling an extra 10 pounds on his frame since he joined the monkhood a few months ago, he’s sluggish. Turns out, he’s not the only one struggling with weight loss woes.
48 percent of monks in Thailand are obese.
Are monks taking their cue from the chubby Buddha? Nearly half of them have a body mass index equal to or greater than 30, which translates to roughly 30 pounds of excess weight, according to a Chulalongkorn University study of 96 monks. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, but the results are consistent with previous findings nationwide: Forty-two percent of monks have high cholesterol, 10 percent are diabetic and 23 percent are strapped with high blood pressure. Soon, those saffron-colored robes won’t be one size fits all anymore.
Monks are mostly solitary brethren, “suffering silently” within the global obesity epidemic, says Jongjit Angkatavanich, a nutrition and dietetics professor at Chulalongkorn. She is assisting with the government’s efforts to trim down and tone up the country’s estimated 200,000 monks. Just like the rest of us non-holy folks, the key culprits here are empty calories and poor fitness, Angkatavanich says. That’s because monks lead “simple, peaceful lives” with a “calm state of mind,” says Mahanarong Chantupamo, a Bangkok monk. Like all monks in Thailand, Chantupamo isn’t allowed to prepare his own meals or eat solid foods after noon. So he relies on the sugar-laden fruit juices and high-carb treats he receives from laypeople during alsmgiving (the ritual of offering gifts to the parade of monks who trek the streets every morning). These unhealthy, often greasy foods are typically purchased from street vendors by laypeople whose intentions are good, but harmful to the monks’ health, Chantupamo says: “It affects both the body and dharma.”
According to the study, monks consume an average of 1,350 calories a day. Although that isn’t many (compare it to 2,500 for most men), you won’t be finding a monk breaking a sweat at the gym anytime soon. After taking those slow morning strolls through town, monks spend the rest of their day praying, meditating and chanting. Chantupamo, for one, has been dutifully following his new, eight-week diet and fitness regimen, which includes proteins like milk and yogurt as well as a “smart belt” that monitors his waistline.
Even so, it’s hard to lose weight after you’ve already packed on the pounds. They say that once a man enters the monkhood, his past life no longer matters. For Chantupamo, though, the calories still count.