11 Healthy Eating Secrets From Thailand
When my boyfriend suggested we travel to Thailand for our annual anniversary/Valentine's Day/his birthday vacation (yeah, somehow we managed to cram all of our romantic holidays into the same calendar week of the year!), I'll admit that I took a bit of convincing.
"Think about the amazing food!!" he said. Since my only experience with Thai food was way-too-oily sauces with a few unrecognizable vegetables all dumped on white rice, the food wasn't exactly a selling point for me.
Eventually he found an angle that piqued my interest, "Massages there are like 10 bucks for an hour! You can get an hour massage for less than a movie theater ticket here!" he pleaded. Finally, a bait that I bit.
The magic found in Thailand was in the healthy food and culture.
Considering I treat myself to a weekly $30-for-half-an-hour foot massage in Chinatown and considering on every birthday, holiday, or vacation we splurge on massages because we love them so much, the idea of being able to get great cheap massages on the reg was what sold me, I'm embarrassed to say. But it did.
So off to Thailand we went, him: excited about the food, culture, monkeys, and elephants, me: excited about the massages.
And now back from Thailand, I'm missing, craving, yearning, cooking the food, reading books on Buddhism, practicing more yoga, diffusing lemongrass essential oils, displaying elephant figurines around the house, and he's saying, "I big fat told you so!"
The truth is that Thailand is much, much more than a beach vacation destination. Unless you live nearby, it's not really the place to fly 20 hours to simply work on your tan. In fact, the perfectly Instagrammable beaches were last on the list of reasons I cried leaving Thailand.
The magic found in Thailand, as my boyfriend predicted (but shh, don't tell him he was right!) was in the healthy food and culture.
Thailand proved to me that you can eat the yummiest food on the planet and still look young, be trim, and feel fabulous. Here are 11 healthy habits I observed and stuffed into my carry-on to implement back at home:
1. Thai people don't really eat "meals."
According to our tour guide, Gerry, with whom we spent the yummiest day of my life perusing Bangkok, Thai people don't really sit down at noon and declare "this is lunch!" nor do they focus their days around breakfast and dinner. Gerry told us they just kind of eat here and there all.day.long.
And I don't mean they're hitting up their refrigerator every few minutes, or they're addicted to Seamless deliveries; it's that you can't walk more than a minute in Bangkok without encountering some amazing street food to nosh on.
So since they're always munching on something, Thai people never really feel restricted or hungry enough to binge! Plus, they're keeping their metabolisms revved up all day long so their bodies aren't panicking about when their next delicious Thai snack's gonna come.
2. Thai folks really don't eat gluten.
Thai cuisine is rice central! And they don't just eat grains of rice; they're insanely awesome at making oodles of different types of noodles from rice, too.
Even their desserts are made from rice! Like mango with sticky rice and a sweetened coconut milk rice pudding.
Eating gluten when your body can't really break it down can really screw with your digestion, skin, weight, and immunity. For Thai people, gluten just isn't really a part of their regular diet.
3. They also don't eat dairy.
I encountered zero dairy in Thailand. ZERO! They just don't eat it.
If anything's a thief of health, it's the super-processed dairy that we Westerners are addicted to. And the fact that they choose coconut milk over cow milk 100 percent couldn't be a healthier life choice.
4. They are crazy for coconuts.
Coconut milk's in everything. There's no dessert I had in Thailand, I guess other than sorbet, that wasn't coconut-milk based. Plus it's a major player in curries, soups, and other main courses. Sometimes we'd be having a meal that started with a coconut milk-based soup, then led to a coconut milk-based curry dish, which finished with a coconut milk-based dessert! Even though I always was on board with the fact that fat doesn't make you fat and coconut milk is quote unquote "good fat" I honestly thought consuming like a liter of it a day would have SOME consequences on my body, but I was totally wrong!
I guess that's because coconut milk is rich in stuff called MCTs, which is the rapper nickname for medium-chain triglycerides, fatty acids that actually help us burn fat.
Coconut milk is also hydrating. Not as hydrating as just plain coconut water (which they drink right out of the coconut with a straw), but it's got a lot of electrolytes nonetheless, which can soothe our gut health and prevent constipation, both of which I can vouch for.
5. They eat so much spice.
Which they say "burns the bad stuff," and yes, that's a direct quote from multiple wonderful Thai people we spoke to.
Actually, when I did some research, I found some studies that said eating spicy foods DOES increase your body heat, which actually can speed up your metabolism.
I also noticed that the spicy thing made me slow way down when eating, which is absolutely a healthier way to be eating! Eating slowly allows your body to actually digest the food as you eat, which can lead to less gas, bloating, and bellyaches later, and it helps you pace yourself so you get fuller AS you're eating and then probably end up eating less.
6. Thai people are insanely obsessed with sun protection.
Not for the right reasons, but still, it keeps them looking youthful.
What do I mean not for the right reasons? This isn't a Bachelor reference; I'm saying that Thai people cover themselves head to toe not to avoid skin cancer and early wrinkles but because it's pushed upon them via billboards and ads that the whiter you are, the more beautiful you are. Seriously.
It was so sad to witness that all the way in Thailand the beauty industry is screwing with people's heads and self-confidence, but way to go Thai people for protecting themselves from the sun.
7. They're huge consumers of ginger.
Ginger is one of the most medicinal plants of all plants. It's a rockstar at stimulating and improving digestion and relieving us of uncomfortable gas and bloating. Ginger is a cold- and flu-fighting ninja, it's extremely anti-inflammatory, can kill intestinal parasites and can boost metabolism, and actually help increase our fat-burning abilities.
In general, I always travel with of packets of ginger tea, plus a box of crystallized ginger to heal digestive woes, but none of this was at all necessary for me to bring to Thailand since they served stomach-soothing ginger tea everywhere I went (without me even asking for it!), they cook so many dishes with illness-zapping ginger, and they sold crystallized ginger everywhere.
8. Their fast food is actually food that's made…quickly.
What we know as "fast food": McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, is for them, what Whole Foods is here—expensive food.
And for us, their fast food like fresh mango cut on the side of the road, sticky rice lightly sweetened and stuffed into a bamboo shoot to peel and eat like a banana, a mushy steamed cookie cup made from just banana and coconut meat is fancy plant-based stuff we'd buy at Whole Foods for $24.99, but this stuff was the cheapest food available in Thailand.
9. They're so gosh darn nice.
And they're calm. We were in Bangkok for days where the traffic was as crazy as Manhattan's traffic and we heard ZERO HONKS, ZERO. How that's possible I don't know, but it just shows that they're not all stress balls zooming around town knocking people out of their way to get raises and promotions and to the store before their coupon expires.
You know that stress is terrible for you, right? In every way possible? Blood pressure-wise, fat-wise, skin-wise, digestion-wise, years of your life-wise, happiness-wise.
They don't really stress like we stress, so if you do the math: less stress = fewer health problems = more beautiful, serene, happy, long-living people.
10. They're the queens and kings of stretching, massage, and yoga.
As my boyfriend said when he sold me on going to Thailand, we could really get perfect massages at super-affordable prices. In Thailand, being an amazing masseur isn't a specialized skill like it is here in America; it's something that everyone learns to do as a child in Thailand.
I'd see shop owners at a market being massaged by their friends when nobody was buying their flowers. Or when nobody was around to give them a massage, they'd do yoga, since they consider yoga a self-massage. Which is such a cool way of looking at it! Which will absolutely inspire me to do more yoga back home.
11. They're actually textbook plant-party people.
My business is called "Party in My Plants" and I define a "plant-party person" as someone who eats a lot of plants, and boy oh boy do Thai people eat lots of plants!
One of the most eye-opening moments of why Thai people are so much healthier than us came from the homestay we did. During our last stop in Chiang Mai, we opted to stay in an American guy's guesthouse rather than a hotel. His wife is Thai and happened to make us the best homemade Thai food in all of Thailand, catered to my exact eating preferences! After three nights of mind-blowing seven-plus-course meals, I decided to sneak a peek in her kitchen.
There was no pantry. I swear, I even asked, just to be sure! Where did they keep their boxes of stuff? Their bars? Crackers? Chocolate? Secret stash of emergency cookies? Their ingredients?! Umm, in the fridge. Because unlike us, they actually cook all fresh food. ALL OF IT. They eat fresh plants (and some meat, yes) but no CRAP (crap = chemical, refined, artificial, and processed foods). With real Thai food, forget preservatives that you can't even pronounce.
And with real Thai food, prepare for plants galore. The best Thai snacks and desserts are made from plants, and veggies play a much bigger role than meat. Sure they eat some meat curries, but the meat-to-plant ratio is definitely in the plant favor! Also, tofu was available everywhere—even places that didn't have tofu on the menu were able to make any curry or pad thai vegan with tofu without blinking an eye.
It's absolutely true that eating and living more like a Thai person is a smart idea for your health and happiness. Cutting back on dairy and gluten, being a nicer, calmer person, doing yoga (and getting massages when possible), eating a lot of ginger, pacing yourself while eating, eating spicy foods, eliminating processed foods, and protecting yourself from the sun for the right reasons are all great ideas to improve your health. Another great idea? Visiting Thailand.
Talia Pollock is the author of Party in Your Plants: 100 Plant-Based Recipes and Problem-Solving Strategies to Help You Eat Healthier Without Hating your Life. She’s also a speaker, storyteller, plant-based chef, TV personality, and health and empowerment coach.
Through her popular Party in My Plants Podcast, humorous videos, and newsletter, Talia helps real, busy, everyday people skyrocket their energy so they can boldly show up in their world as their best. Her uniquely spunky lifestyle advice has been celebrated regularly on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, The Doctors, Forbes, Buzzfeed, Bustle, Success Magazine and in a 4-page spread in her small childhood town’s newspaper. She lives in New York with her husband and her goldendoodle, both of whom love kale and one of whom eats it off the floor. She really wants to email you so get on her list here.