Millions of Americans resolve each year to get into shape, with weight loss as their number-one goal. This is laudable, to be sure, as obesity is a growing global epidemic that compromises health in myriad ways. Unfortunately, dieting and exercise regimes often emphasize appearance over wellbeing. Since our youth, we have been bombarded by media images of slim and shapely celebrities and models, accompanied by countless articles on how to achieve these idolized and idealized physical forms. An entire industry now thrives on “helping” people to attain the perfect body (by definition unattainable), with superficial and tenuous results that often have little to do with real health.
In fact, what’s going on beneath the surface should be our top concern. For the past 15 years, coronary heart disease (CHD) has cut short significantly more lives than any other cause of death—nearly 10 million people globally in 2016. It could easily be any one of us. CHD results from cholesterol and plaque build-up in the arteries, which reduces blood flow to the heart. This build-up can occur due to poor diet—overly processed food and refined grains as well as excess fat and sugar—coupled with physical inactivity, which is the fourth highest risk factor for death worldwide. Family history certainly influences our likelihood of developing CHD, but it wouldn’t hurt any of us to make changes to our lifestyles that would reduce our risk.
Of course it’s quite common to score well on key health indicators—blood pressure, cholesterol, and waistline measurement—but still lack that feeling of vim and vigor. Or maybe we ourselves feel great but are concerned about all the people on this planet—not to mention the planet itself—who suffer from poor health. So from a wellbeing perspective, being in-shape goes much deeper than a superficially svelte physique. It manifests as vital energy and fitness that enable us all to enjoy a good life, now and far into the future.
The residents of Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center set the bar high for lifestyle changes that support long-term and interdependent physical wellbeing. Their changes were extreme, especially for Thailand: they traded meat and sticky rice for a whole plant-based diet and desk jobs for farm work. When asked why, the Asoke folks pointed to obvious health benefits but also spoke about the deeper meanings that motivated them. Our changes might not be as drastic, but we can certainly learn a few things about fueling our bodies with good food and keeping them fit in ways that extend wellbeing outward, like ripples in a pond.
Thais love food so much it seems only right to start our wellbeing journey with it. The staple in Thailand is rice: fragrant, fluffy white jasmine rice or in the Northeast, sticky (glutenous) rice that is rolled in a ball and used in lieu of a spoon to pick up food. Rice is so important that it’s the first spoonful a person eats at each meal (to acknowledge the life it brings); everything else on the table is called gap kao, which means (the stuff that goes) “with rice.”
The “stuff that goes with rice” is what distinguishes even ordinary home- or street-cooked Thai food. Such a complexity of flavors in each dish! Creamy curries, spicy stir fries seasoned with fish or oyster sauce, coconut milk-based soups, savory fried fish and barbequed meat, and varied presentations of yam(my favorite: anything with the four flavors of sour, sweet, salty, and spicy, like like som tham—unripened papaya salad, or yam woon sen—glass noodle salad), with tons of herbs (Thai basil, cilantro, mint, scallions, lemon grass, ginger, and of course garlic) and beautifully diverse vegetables (like eggplant and morning glory stalks and bamboo shoots). Thai food is truly a national treasure.
The food eaten by members of the Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement is, well…different. I actually learned about “eating right the Asoke way” long before I started my dissertation research. My introduction was in a cafeteria-style vegetarian restaurant in the northern city of Chiang Mai that I visited as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) fresh out of college.
When a fellow PCV told me about the place, I was overjoyed. I hadn’t been a vegetarian when I arrived in Thailand, but I quickly became one after my first trip to an open air market, where flies buzzed over raw meat, mangy dogs and cockroaches scuttled around murky puddles, and the putrid odors of fermented shrimp paste and dried squid triggered my gag reflex.
But being vegetarian in Thailand is tough. Thais eat meat with every meal, and when you try to explain that you’re vegetarian, they look at you like you are speaking another language. (Admittedly, Thais often did have a hard time at first registering the fact that this 6-foot tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman could be speaking Thai, but I’m sure I was saying it correctly, in several different ways.) So this little vegetarian restaurant was an oasis worth the 6-hour bus ride it took to reach it.
The restaurant’s interior was simple, clean, and cheerful, with a tidy collection of gleaming aluminum tables and white plastic chairs, and freshly painted white walls adorned in neon pink and orange slogans: “Consume Little! Work Hard! Give the Rest to Society!” and “Be a Meritism Community!” (Later I would learn the significance of these slogans, but at the time I just saw them as charmingly quirky). The front was completely open to the sidewalk, so welcoming and breezy, and the back was lined with a glass-fronted steel buffet, where kind-faced men and women in similar indigo farmer-style clothing served an array of steaming food.
The Asoke versions of Thailand’s complex curries, stir fries, and yamsare still full of vegetables, but they also include soy-based meat substitute, black and adzuki beans, nuts, and liberal sprinklings of black sesame for protein (but no dairy—it wasn’t part of the typical Thai diet at that time so I didn’t question it). The rice is the biggest difference: hearty and unrefined, in hues ranging from nearly black to reddish brown. When I first tasted the food, I sadly noticed the absence of fish and oyster sauce so prevalent in Thai cooking (not to mention that lovely white rice). But once I got over the initial disappointment and stopped expecting it to be “Thai food,” I began to appreciate it for what it was: still a richly complex mix of flavors, but also surprisingly satisfying in its wholesomeness. After just one meal I sensed that this sort of diet would alleviate the energy and gut issues that had plagued me since I arrived in Thailand.
At Srisa Asoke, we ate roughly the same kind of fare, albeit influenced by the flora and flavors of the Northeastern or Isan region. In fact, most of the food was grown and processed right there in the community—all without chemicals. They even made their own soy sauce, fermenting soybeans they had grown themselves in giant ceramic urns. The exception was rice, which was grown by neighboring farmers who made a commitment to use organic methods. But then the rice was processed in the community’s very own mill to ensure that the vital nutrients weren’t polished away Thai style.
Why do Asoke members eat this way? First and foremost, it’s a way to demonstrate and develop their values. They are vegetarian in order to uphold the Number One precept, “Do not kill.” True, most other Thai Buddhists (who make up 94% of the Thai population) are not vegetarian…but that’s why the Asoke group calls itself a “reform” movement. So for those who are committed to the Buddhist path, the simple act of eating becomes so much more.
Srisa Asoke residents also raved about the health benefits of their diet like better digestion and more energy, which I myself experienced. That’s an argument most other Thais could understand, too. In fact, after all my efforts during my Peace Corps service to find the right Thai word for “vegetarian,” what finally made sense was a simple statement: “I don’t eat meat because it’s hard to digest.” Thais would invariably respond with knowing head nods and murmurs of agreement. The hearty brown rice and beans, of course, have a lot to do with the improved digestion, as do the piles of fresh vegetables. The Asoke movement actively promotes their approach to eating at inexpensive vegetarian restaurants, not to attract new members (though that happens), but to improve the lives of Thai people through better health.
The Asoke emphasis on an organicdiet could be explained by their environmental ethic and their value of self-sufficiency (which I’ll talk about in detail later). But most Thais are again better convinced by the health benefits. During my time at Srisa Asoke, Asoke members who grew up farming (like 60 percent of the Thai population) spoke out against the liberal use of chemicals in Thai agriculture. They would share their own and neighbors’ experiences of respiratory problems or general malaise as well as stories of cancer they believed to be caused by pesticide exposure. People who live so closely to the land have a much easier time accepting the idea of interdependence, given the clear connection between environmental and human health.
Lesson: Eat food that is whole, plant-based, and chemical-free.
The whole-food, plant-based diet has champions in the US as well. Former US President Bill Clinton has probably done the most to popularize this lifestyle when he spoke about his efforts to lose weight and (potentially) reverse heart disease in a 2017 CNN interview.
But there was already movement in that direction, thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s 2008 best-selling book, In Defense of Food. In writing this book, Pollan’s top concern was the top 4 causes of death in the US—coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer—which he links to our industrialized “Western Diet.” By this, Pollan means processed foods and refined grains, chemicals on plants and animals in monoculture, super abundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat, and the narrowing of our diverse diet to corn, wheat, and soy…especially in North America.
To reverse this trend, Pollan offers a brilliantly simple maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By food, Pollan means “real food”—whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) with minimal processing (except what is necessary for health safety, such as pasteurization). By “not too much,” Pollan cautions a nation of recreational eaters who are growing in girth to consume only what they need. Finally, he advocates for a plant-based diet, from which we can get nearly all the nutrients we need.
Quite a bit of medical research now supports the benefits of a plant-based diet. In “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets” (The Permanente Journal, 2013), Philip J Tuso, MD (Regional Co-Lead for the Complete Care Program of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group) and his colleagues conducted an extensive literature review and concluded that vegan or vegetarian populations have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. They also refuted typical concerns about plant-based diets, such as insufficient protein and iron, though they did recommend careful planning or supplements for populations at risk for deficiencies in Vitamin B12, Calcium, Vitamin D, and Omega-3 fatty acids. For those that would promote strict adherence to this diet as necessary for health, the authors caution, “A plant-based diet is not an all-or-nothing program, but a way of life that is tailored to each individual.” Thus, they argued, physicians (and the public) should commit to learning more and making diet-change recommendations as appropriate.
For a definitive reference on “foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease,” see Dr. Michael Greger’s 2015 international bestseller, How Not to Die.Part One of this heavily-referenced-but-accessible tome runs through “how not to die” from 15 of the most common causes of death—including major organ diseases, cancers, infections, and suicidal depression—by adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet, citing robust research specific to each disease. Part Two shifts attention to specific foods, like berries, nuts, beans, greens, cruciferous vegetables, and whole grains to define comprehensively the categories of plant-based foods, their benefits, and how to best to eat them. Those wanting a simple approach can adopt Dr. Greger’s “Daily Dozen,” which sums up recommended servings of 11 food types plus exercise. While the sheer volume of information in this book may be intimidating, the tone is empathetic and encouraging: if we aim for better (not perfect), we can continually build on our successes.
As for the benefits of a chemical-free diet, this gets surprisingly less attention than a plant-based one in the medical community. It seems like physicians would advocate this as well, particularly in light of what we know about pesticides. According to experts at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), over half of conventional produce when washed still contains pesticide residues that impair the endocrine and immune system and are “known animal and suspected human carcinogens.” On top of that, some of the 500 + additives allowed in conventional food processing have harmful effects on human health. While IFOAM may certainly have a bias, unquestionable concern over pesticides was also raised in an objective 2017 report to the European Parliament, “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture.” Much buzz was generated around a 2012 study by Stanford University that suggested that organic food isn’t necessarily more nutritious in terms of vitamin content, but that seems irrelevant. A chemical-free diet is it is still healthier—for ourselves, the people who grow and process our food, and the environment.
Regarding benefits of organic farming for the environment, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gives a good summary. Building soil quality and managing pests using diverse methods (rather than just adding chemicals) creates an ecological balance that reduces soil infertility and pest problems and improves yields over the long term. Eliminating chemicals also prevents groundwater contamination, which is a major problem in many agricultural areas. And since synthetic fertilizer and pesticide production relies on petrochemicals, switching to organic methods reduces fossil fuel dependence and greenhouse gas production (a major contributor to climate change). Ultimately, what’s good for the environment is good for all of us.