Rising levels of obesity can be addressed by people simply eating less fast-food and more of what generations of Vietnamese have previously survived perfectly well on.

By Kevin Raison on October 18,2017 02:01 PM


photos: Viet Tuan

To many people, Vietnam seems a vibrant and rich wonderland of opportunity and growth. It’s true as well; GDP has been rising ever upwards year after year. Vietnam is developing and its culture is changing. One glorious example of this is how Western music now consists of more than just Michael Jackson and ‘Hotel California’ played, roughly, 1,738 times a day. On the other hand, it seems that with its newfound modernity Vietnam is beginning to suffer the diseases of affluence - perhaps most notable of which is increased rates of overweight and obese people.

To clarify, these two categories are determined by a person’s ‘body-mass index’, a (somewhat flawed) system of evaluation used to compare one’s height to one’s weight rather than accounting for a body fat percentage, which is a more important number for health evaluation. But that’s a different article. This may surprise some travellers, as Vietnam is still among 20 countries in the world with the most malnourished children, but UNICEF has estimated that the rate of overweight children in Vietnam increased as much as 600% from 2000 to 2014. The highly-evident poverty in many regions of Vietnam leaves no question as to why there is still so much malnutrition in Vietnam, but the UN report begs the question why.


In my work, I’m lucky in that I can listen to many people much older and wiser than I regale me with tales of Vietnam from their youth. It wasn’t that long ago that the notion of fast-food was alien and drinks that contained almost ridiculous amounts of sugar were far less common. Nowadays, however, by simply driving along Giang Vo Street in Hanoi one can see many fast-food brands. The consequences of such poor food options are the various diseases associated with their excessive consumption. A lot of these foods are extremely high in sugar, fat, and salt. Now, we don’t have time to get into matters such as ‘bliss-point’, which renders even ultra-low quality food with an almost chemically addictive quality. Suffice to say, these foods are designed to be desired and eaten. Don’t believe me? I encourage you to Google for yourself the amount of sugar inside some condiments. You might be shocked to find that ketchup has more sugar in it, gram for gram, than some ice cream.

In Vietnam, such fast-food establishments are often viewed as trendy or fashionable, where being a patron expresses one’s status. Of course, this is a far cry from the image of fast-food joints in the West. More than just the food choices, however, how people eat seems, in particular, to be changing. People are still putting food in their mouths, sure, but their minds are far too often elsewhere. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the act of eating isn’t something simply mechanical, something you do with your hands and mouth. It’s a psychological and emotional process as well. I’m sure readers can think of a food that they adore more than any other. Focusing on that image, they start to feel they want the food, they’re hungry, they can almost taste that beautiful glistening doughnut upon their lips - oh rapture!


Point being, the mind plays an important role in the eating process. One focuses on their food; they see it, smell it, feel it, and taste it. Now, if a food is experienced with less, shall we say, notice to the brain, one certainly doesn’t derive nearly the same degree of pleasure from the food. If I go back to my sweet luscious doughnut and simply think the word ‘doughnut’, I don’t feel too much reward from that. It’s when a food is really engaged with that it becomes satiating. To explain my point, ever try eating a favourite when you have a cold or flu and have lost the power of smell? It’s not nearly as rewarding, right? As a consequence, if one doesn’t feel the same reward from a given food, they might feel compelled to simply eat more of the given food to try and elicit the same sense of satiation, of gustatory happiness. This is not simply the idle postulation of an admittedly now hungry writer, as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has reported that not being mindful, aware, and in the moment of one’s meal tends to lead people to eat more than if they were to actually focus on their repast.

Now, reading the above you might scoff and think to yourself, ‘well, of course I pay attention to my food, I know what I eat, and my olfactory senses work just fine thanks, I’ve not had a cold nor the flu in quiet some time.’ To this I might prod with the question ‘just how many times did you check your phone during your most recent meal?’ Screens are intertwined with our daily lives and are, more often than not, finding their place at the dinner table. Mobile phone use in Vietnam is profound. Out of 100 people, every single one of them have a mobile phone, and almost half have two. One can be sure screens, and distractions, are finding their way to meal, snack, and café time.

In reality, the complexity of human biochemistry, cultural evolution, and the nuances of human habits are, well, complex, but what people do seem to understand clearly is that obesity doesn’t tend to come with positive health effects. Heart disease, stroke, harsher wear and tear on joints, early onset of puberty in children, and numerous health effects seem to stem from the changes in a human’s body caused by obesity. The reality then, is that Vietnam will have to consider an increased incidence of these sorts of issues if the rates of obesity continue to climb. The alternative is to do something about it all.

Amazingly, reducing the incidence of obesity only requires people do what they’ve often done throughout time in most cultures. For some reason, many cultures tend to develop meals that provide nutritional benefit. For example, white rice has a high glycemic index that can lead to sudden spikes in blood sugar that can, in turn, lead to type II diabetes. In Vietnam though, rice is often paired with other foods, such as fatty pork. The fat in the pork slows overall digestion, which can lead to a slower increase in blood sugar levels. In short: no spike, no diabetes. It seems that, to eat well, people often just need to stick to their traditional diets, avoid excessive processed foods, and when they eat, simply eat. To quote one of my favourite authors on the topic of food culture, Michael Pollen, people should ‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants.’ Eat real food, not hyper-refined nonsense, nothing to excess, and focus on plant-based nutrition and one will certainly do well. Now that’s not to say one shouldn’t indulge from time to time. Life is, to some extent, about happiness. But for me personally, when I have my doughnut, I don’t worry about the selfies or anything else. In that moment, it’s just me and the doughnut, and I’m without a doubt very satisfied by the treat. Until I realise it’s now mooncake season; mmm mooncakes. Specifically, mooncakes with mindfulness and moderation.


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