Alms-giving gives some monks ill health
EVERY day, Phra Pisit Siriwathatano would leave his temple at dawn to conduct a daily alms round in his Bangkok neighbourhood of Nonthaburi. Taking about two hours, the monk later returned to the monastery with a full alms bowl and a large sack filled with food offerings from Buddhist laymen and laywomen. Sometimes, people would also visit the temple to offer lunch to him and other monks.
“Some people really take pride in their food. But when we ate it, it was just too salty,” said Pisit. At age 58, Luang Por, Thai for “venerable father”, described his health as being in a degenerative state. One of his legs was hurting from unknown causes, and he also said he got sick easily. It was unclear if he was suffering from any diseases.
“When I eat unhealthy food, my body reacts badly,” he said, also reporting that the monks he knows are generally not in good health.
The food Phra Pisit received that day in his alms round consisted of ready-to-eat meals bought from local fresh markets, and even prepackaged food from convenience stores. He didn’t comment on the meals. He cannot choose his food, and can only eat what’s offered to him.
A monk’s diet can consist of anything from everyday Thai cuisine such as stir-fried vegetables, hot soup, curry, chilli paste, and more, topped off occasionally with Thai golden sweets. As appetising as they seem, some of them also come with high levels of sugar, fat and salt, and are unhealthy – a fact most people seem to overlook.
According to associate professor Jongjit Angkatavanich, a health and nutrition expert from Chulalongkorn University, it’s been found that 44 percent of monks in Bangkok are overweight, while 52pc suffer from hypercholesterolaemia (excess cholesterol in the bloodstream).
Comparatively, the figure for ordinary men of similar age fell to 37pc for being overweight and 39pc for hypercholesterolaemia. About 9pc of monks also suffer from diabetes.
Jongjit has been working on her project – supported by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation – to study and improve the behaviour and nutrition of monks since 2011. The nutritionist said these health problems share a similar root, and it’s borne from none other than the food monks consume each day.
Food such as curry with coconut milk, for example, is a source of fat and salt. Soft drinks, sweet green tea and processed juices – a popular offering – come with high sugar content. And when consumed repeatedly – especially by monks who, by canon, cannot exercise – the meals, offered to them in good faith, become a burden to their bodies – a source of illness.
It used to be general practice for families to cook their own food and offer it to monks, enabling control over their own food selection. Today, however, busy lifestyles have reduced home-cooked meals to processed, prepackaged food, leaving most of the decision-making to food vendors.
At many fresh markets, food stalls now sell ready-to-eat meal sets in the morning to accommodate laypeople in their almsgiving – a reflection on people’s changed lifestyle. The meal usually consists of cooked rice, a side dish, dessert and water – all packed into separate plastic bags and containers. Each set costs around 20-50 baht (roughly K700-1700).
One morning, Chaiya, who asked to remain anonymous, dropped by such a food stall with his wife. He bought seven meals from the vendor to offer to passing monks.
“I usually buy this food based on what I myself like to eat,” he said, gesturing to the bags of fish curry, fried rice and larb moo in his hands. “It’s easy to just buy and give away. Of course, it’s a given that we don’t really have that many options to choose from, especially in terms of controlling the ingredients or fat level. But it’ll have to do when we’re in a rush.”
It’s quite a general practice to offer monks food based on one’s own favourites or a deceased’s favourites. Health is generally not people’s number-one concern when it comes to meal selection for monks.
Since monks aren’t able to choose their own food, nutritionist Jongjit has developed four key solutions and concepts – food, drink, physique and activity – for monks to be cautious of in order to stay healthy. They require monks to alter some of their habits, though in ways that won’t violate the religious code.
Some of this advice includes consuming an equal amount of rice and vegetables, and opting for water and milk instead of sugary drinks.
The nutritionist also suggested monks watch their own weight and waistline. Generally, a man’s waistline shouldn’t exceed 85 centimetres (33.5 inches).
“Waistline is at the heart of taking care of your health. A big tummy correlates with high level of sugar, blood pressure and fat.”
For activity, Jongjit said morning alms rounds, circumambulation (walking mediation), sweeping the temple grounds, and walking in general are some of the exercises monks can perform that won’t violate their conduct.
“I battle with people’s beliefs in doing this project,” said the nutritionist. “It seems to break cultural traditions and religious limitations. But, really, it’s not for monks to start being picky about what they eat, but rather for them to watch out for what and how much they’re eating. The diseases befalling them are preventable with a change in habit.”
Jongjit’s project has resulted in the development of educational materials such as information booklets, diaries, posters and calendars – as well as an invention of colourful measuring tapes and marked sashes to keep track of one’s waistline – which aim to encourage monks to pay more attention and keep track of their own well-being.
These materials have yielded a satisfactory result in instilling and adjusting monks into new habits. Monks who started abiding by the four health concepts, claimed Jongjit, showed a statistically significant decrease in cholesterol, triglyceride and body-mass index after two months.
So far, Jongjit’s team has organised a few workshops in the provinces, attended by monks and local nurses to help spread the knowledge to their respective communities. A set of posters and booklets was also developed for laypeople and temple cooks to educate them on the kind of food that should be given to monks. The nutritionist said the team also plans to partner with the Department of Health and religious organisations to expand the use of these educational materials nationwide.
“All these messages that we’re giving monks – they’re applicable to everyone,” said Jongjit. “And when monks have seen the benefits of this healthier lifestyle, they can become the community’s role models and educate the laypeople. When monks become stronger and healthier, the people will, too.” – The Bangkok Post
Young monks conduct their alms-giving rounds in Shan State. Some of the food they receive may be bad for their health, a Thai study suggsts.