Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blame the West

Western fast food fuelling SE Asia diabetes boom*

(AFP) SYDNEY — The growing popularity of Western junk food is fuelling a diabetes boom across Southeast Asia, Australian researchers warned on Wednesday.

Studies found about 11 percent of men and 12 percent of women in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City had type 2 diabetes without knowing it, on top of the four percent of people who are diagnosed sufferers.

"Dietary patterns have been changing dramatically in Vietnam in recent years, particularly in the cities as they become more Westernised," said Tuan Nguyen of Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
"There are fast food outlets everywhere..."

I don't buy it.

More specifically, I believe that there is a lot of Type 2 diabetes in Vietnam (and across Southeast Asia.) But I don't believe that a few dozen KFCs and the bit of other western fast foods available are a significant factor.

The standard day to day diet in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, while often delicious, is horribly unhealthy and highly conducive to inducing various health problems - very heavy on carbohydrates (rice, rice and more rice,) lots of meats, fats and offal, limited vegetables, most everything stir fried in oil, sugar added to almost all stir-fries and soups and msg in the cooking. And on top of that, given the opportunity, a very sedentary lifestyle. The Southeast Asian diet and life-style is a virtual formula for Type 2 diabetes (and hypertension and high cholesterol,) led by the daily consumption of copious quantities of  white rice. White rice (or rice noodles) is eaten with virtually every meal.

The prevalence of rice in the diet has even made its mark in colloquial language where the verb 'to eat' has become synonymous with the phrase 'eat rice' (e.g. ăn cơm in Vietnamese, ngum bye in Khmer.) You've not eaten until you've eaten rice. And it's not just a few tablespoons of rice with meals, but mounds of it. Most of it jasmine rice, which carries the highest glycemic load of all the various sorts of white rices. Eating white rice, especially jasmine rice, has been likened (with only some exaggeration) to eating straight sugar.

The limited availability of a few western fast foods outlets in some urban areas is like pissing in the rain when it comes to adding diabetes inducing items to the local diet.

If there has been an actual increase in Type 2 diabetes in Vietnam and other mainland Southeast Asia countries, (as opposed to an research artifact, i.e. formerly undiagnosed cases now being diagnosed,) I suspect it is due to increased affluence in the region allowing Southeast Asians to engage more fully in the dreadfully unhealthy local diet and lifestyle - more meat, better rice, more leisure time. Some people would like to characterize Type 2 diabetes as a "Western lifestyle disease." In Southeast Asia it is not a Western lifestyle disease. It is not born of KFCs and Twinkies. It is a Southeast Asian lifestyle disease. 

* Photo by AFP


  1. I'd have to agree, it's nothing to do with a Western diet, my mother in law suffers from type 2 diabetes and has only eaten Western style food on extremely rare occasions. I've also heard people blaming rising obesity in Cambodia on Western diets, but again the relatives I've got who are overweight just eat large portions of local food, often, not Western food.

  2. Same with my mother-in-law. Grew up and lives in a rural area. I don't thinks she's ever had western food in her life let alone been to a KFC, and at 55 has Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. And I know of several similar cases. Just anecdotal, I know, but nevertheless seems to accord with studies that show comparatively high rates of Type 2 diabetes in rural areas where western food is completely unavailable.

  3. Finally some straight talking on this subject. The fact is that many Asians have only avoided these diseases in the past due to not having enough to eat, or at least not enough to overeat. Fat and sugar are prized, and there are many strange ideas about the health giving properties of these. As soon as they can afford a high fat, high sugar diet they are into it. It has nothing to do with Western food. Another element is the force feeding of male children, although I've noticed an increasing number of females being force fed. I had the unfortunate experience of sharing a 4 berth cabin on the train from HCMC to Hanoi with a family that were force feeding the 2 or 3 year old boy. He was fed every 2 or 3 hours including through the night. The mother and rather skinny older sister took turns to wake up and feed him. I woke every time. He was often fed until he vomited, and had a general demeanor of lassitude with no light in his eyes. It was so awful in so many ways...