While Thailand has successfully controlled its problems with undernutrition over recent decades, the country is now facing an outbreak of overnutrition.
During the ‘Eighties, the government’s successful Poverty Alleviation Plan prompted the number of underweight preschool children to declin by over one-half to 20%, and continued to drop to less than 10% in 2006.
At the same time, as a middle-income developing country, Thailand saw continued economic growth that brought with it “quite alarming” obesity rates as well as rising curative costs to treat the noncommunicable chronic diseases it can cause.
Mixed bag of policies
But this is not new news to the Thais, say Visith Chavasit, Vijj Kasemsup and Kraisid Tontisirin of Mahidol University, the researchers behind a study into the country’s nutrition trends.
“Various organisations have conducted national programmes that have focusing on nutrition education and public campaigns, although these have had mixed results,” they wrote.
“The Thai government and stakeholders are now implementing preventive rather than curative measures, [although] national strategies have experienced both successes and failures. Several new projects are being planned for future implementation.”
Since 2010, the government’s National Food Committee has been attempting to tackle obesity by focusing on the link between agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.
It sees this chain as especially important because, in spite of an abundance of cheap-priced fruits and vegetables in the country, the average Thai male only consumes an average of 268g of produce each day.
In the past, the country put its emphasis on food-based dietary guidelines and a “nutrition flag” that advised on the proper proportions of food groups that should be consumed each day.
“The original nutrition education and communication guides were difficult for people to understand. Consequently, the suggested portions were modified to reflect familiar serving utensils and are now more useful for dietitians and food counselors,” lamented the researchers.
Subsequently, a simplified and successful campaign was launched to recommend Thais to devote half their diets to fruit and vegetables, and half to everything else. Launched in 2005, this continued until the following year, when it was discontinued through lack of funding.
Behind the labels
Recently, labelling has come come under the spotllight in a country where only milk and a handful of children’s foods are required to carry nutrition labelling, although snackfoods must now carry guidelines for daily amounts (GDA).
While, aside from snackfoods, GDA labelling is done on a voluntary basis and has not been popular due to the local custom to interpret GDAs per package, rather than serving, regardless of the size of the pack.
Even though the National Food Committee is devising new measures, more research and capacity development is still needed before the committee’s policies can be implemented, argue the researchers.
“It is essential to monitor and evaluate programmes in terms of output, outcomes, impacts, cost-effectiveness and efficiency for further improvement,” they wrote.