Obesity in the Sangha

Why many Buddhist monks are overweight?

I notice that many Buddhist monks seems overweight.
What is the reason?
The only reason I can think of is that they consume too much sweet or they consume beverage containing too much sugar.
This is a result that monks are only allowed to consume non-solids after mid day.
The objective of this post is to increase the awareness of this problem and improve the health of our most valuable treasure. (Monks)
I remember reading that diabetics is very common among Buddhist monks.
Perhaps we should make a campaign to increase the awareness of this curable disease.

I post this in Dhamma Wheel and became a very interesting discussion.

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=29145

1 Like

Do we have proper stats to really say it is a problem of the monks and not necessarily of the whole society they live within?

To help with those I offer this link:

http://www.worldobesity.org/resources/world-map-obesity/

How could we through a discussion here make anything to really help with the issue?

Is anywhere in EBTs said that one’s weight affect his endeavour and cultivation of the path?

All I can recall is Buddha’s advice to king Pasenadi who was probably a chronic obese king:

When a person is constantly mindful,
And knows when enough food has been taken,
All their afflictions become more slender
— They age more gradually, protecting their lives.
– SN3.13

At the same time, I remember reading in the Vinaya that back in ancient India being skinny was considered not good and linked to depressed mind states. Rounded features and bright complexion was a sign of happiness.

At that time the monks who had spent the rains in those regions had become lean, wretched, of a bad colour, having become very yellow, their veins standing out all over their bodies; but the monks from the banks of the Vaggumudā had become handsome, of rounded features, their complexions bright, their skins clear.
Source: https://suttacentral.net/en/pi-tv-bu-vb-pc8

True, it’s probably a bit of both. Obesity in monastic population is probably not that different to general.
But in my dietetic analysis of the unique situation for monks, here’s what I’d say :grin:

Many young monks are thin, maybe underweight.

Older monks maybe overweight due to -

  1. normal age related adiposity (related to declining testosterone)

2.decrease in activity (especially heavy work but even walking) with age

3.The overconsumption of rich ‘allowables’ in the evening

  • increased consumption of high GI, high sugar foods in evening. This is particularly significant in the context of ‘otherwise fasting’ -> high blood sugar -> burst of insulin -> increased fat storage
  • no protein in evening to counteract the above. (this effect could be counteracted by taking miso, cheese or soymilk in the evening, instead of other allowables)

4.related co-morbidities. I feel like quite a few of the monks I’ve met have diabetes, particularly from south Asian backgrounds. It’s kind of a catch 22, obesity -> diabetes, and diabetes -> obesity

But ultimately, maintaining the perfect body shape is not important. From what I’ve seen it’s not always easy to find a reason for someone being overweight (or underweight) and it doesn’t necessarily meant they’re unhealthy, or even that they eat too much or the wrong thing. The body’s just a support to reach a higher goal, so no need to worry about it too much.

9 Likes

Interestingly, in the origin story of Bhikkhus’ Sanghadisesa rule #8 provide an interesting snapshot of the different kinds of monks were there in the very early Sangha:

And Dabba assigned lodgings to the monks according to their character.

He assigned lodgings in the same place to those monks who were discourse experts (suttantikā), thinking, “They’ll recite the discourses together.”

And he did likewise for the experts on monastic law (vinayadharā), thinking, “They’ll deliberate on the monastic law;”

for the teachers (dhammakathikā), thinking, “They’ll discuss the Teaching;”

for the meditators/jhana doers (jhāyino), thinking, “They won’t disturb each other;”

and for the gossips and the body-builders (tiracchā­na­ka­thikā kāya­daḷhi­bahulā viharanti), thinking, “In this way even these venerables will be happy.”

This is why I love the Vinaya Pitaka, it shows a very down-to-earth picture of human beings being human beings and how awakened disciples and the Buddha dealt harmoniously and compassionately with those!
:slight_smile:

8 Likes

i too noticed that many Sri Lankan monks if not overweight then fairy plump which admittedly gave rise to some jealousy considering their regimen (provided the Vinaya is maintained), because for me it would be different

So good to remember that! And yet, as I grow older I really notice the negative effects of eating sugar and simple carbohydrates on my energy levels, stability of mind, and meditation practice. I wonder if this is actually partly cultural as well - that is, that in some cultures you would eat other foods that would slow down the digestion of sugars, or your lifestyle would ameliorate these effects, or your interpretation of the psycho-physical effects would be more positive.

The western monks at my local Thai Forest monastery are not overweight which seems to me to be quite an achievement given the unbelievable rich and yummy Thai food that they are offered.

2 Likes

There was a news paper article about this very epidemic among Sri Lankan monks I saw online a few years ago. It confirmed what I’ve witnessed as a layperson and as a yogi living in a monastery for several years in Asia and in the west.

I don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’ll be blunt. Lay people offer an overabundance of snack type of foods, sweets with refined sugar, baked goods high in saturated fats, potato chip type of foods really high in salt and boiled in vats of industrial cooking oil that makes the oil become carcinogenic.

And on the monastic side of things, the monastics are often uneducated or unaware of the health consequences of eating such foods in high quantity, and/or they can not curb their urges for snacky foods.

There are other sensitive aspects which makes things more complex, but basically it boils down to the two points above if you want the root causes of the diabetes, obesity, and unhealthy monks.

According to the vinaya, the monastics are supposed to not complain about the food and appreciate whats offered, and if this is taken to the extreme, then the monastics pretty much are doomed to suffer ill health stemming from a poor diet the older they get. I’ve noticed the more famous monks get, the more they seem likely to have this problem. And once they start taking various medications for diabetes, etc, then the problem compounds because the medications makes them bloated, weaker, perpetuating a negative downward spiral.

Perhaps the vinaya allows monastics, once they start to become ill, to then refuse to eat the more egregious unhealthy foods and only eat the healthier fare (without complaint of course, but observant lay people may ask and find out, and then start to increase the number of healthier items offered, on their own volition).

The solution to the problem is first of all, monastics and laypeople need some rudimentary knowledge about eating a healthy balanced diet.

There is a supply and demand kind of cycle that goes on as well that the monastics have to be accountable for. If they’re noticably happy eating proportionally large amounts of unhealthy food, it signals to the laypeople that they like it and should keep offering it. If they only take a token amount of the unhealthy fare, to show appreciation, but eat the bulk of their food on the healthier fare, then observant lay people will readjust the amount of healthy fare they offer.

That’s just one kind of typical scenario, and other circumstances call for different measures. If you’re going for alms round in a poor village and all they can offer are frog legs and white rice, then you eat that happily with appreciation of course.

I really feel for the monastics who are not robust or strong in health. It’s great to have the ideal of eating purely according to the vinaya, but when you find it’s hard to carry out spiritual practice from having a weak body and groggy mind because of the diet, it’s not an easy life.

8 Likes

not to dispute your experience, from what i saw in videos of meal offerings to monks in Sri Lanka the food seemed to be home cooked and consisted mainly of what looked like vegetables and rice

Do monks attend to regular (annual) preventative medical check?
This will help to early diagnosis of any possible future medical problems.

wouldn’t that be unnecessary preoccupation with the body?

[quote=“LXNDR, post:10, topic:4552, full:true”]

wouldn’t that be unnecessary preoccupation with the body?
[/quote]Would it be? If it is possible and the monk can avoid issues of handling money to afford it (and that presumes a certain healthcare capacity in a given society) than isn’t it prudent for them?

If a monastery was built and the ground it was built upon was found to be leaking natural gas into the structure, it would be prudent for the monastery to relocate. Or would that also be unnecessary preoccupation with the body and its health? I think that it is not an issue to take advantage of modern medicine if it is available. Even from a strictly Dhamma-centric perspective, if such a thing can be said to exist, being healthy means you have a longer time to pursue the goal of Dhamma practice. These monks should at least be taking care of that if it is available to them.

1 Like

on an individual level it rather depends on a person, but on an institutional level this may create an atmosphere of attachment of additional importance to the body

there’s difference between taking action to avoid known poisoning and doing constant checkups to find whether you’re being poisoned so to speak

when one feels sick not seeking medical help would certainly be imprudent, but looking for illnesses when feeling healthy or ok has this undertone of preoccupation, conceptually

I think there’s definitely something in that. I always find food culture amazing. For example, Japanese cuisine includes a lot of short grain sushi rice which is very high GI, but it’s often eaten with vinegar/pickled foods which lower the GI of rice. Many people from vegetarian cultures never become iron deficient on rice and lentils, whereas I as a vego am constantly fighting that battle. I’ve also noticed that cultures where High GI carbohydrates are staples (east and south east Asia) seem to have less diabetes than populations where lower GI carbs are staples (South Asia/ west). So there seems to be some biological/cultural thing going on.
Anyway that’s enough of my irrelevant nerding out :laughing:

Of course we can’t generalize as it differs from place to place. The main offering is usually really good. I remember eating this weird root vegetable that was like chewing a piece of wood with bits of potato coming out now and then. I was thinking ‘oh god this has to be healthy because there’s literally nothing else this food has going for it’. But there’s always cakes, bikkies, jaggery, kitul pani, and too much fruit, not to mention the tea loaded with sugar :laughing:

7 Likes

Personally, I’ve always found the food at Taiwanese temples to be the best. All vegetarian, but they’ve made it taste so good (perhaps learned over the centuries of veggie-only cooking).

2 Likes

Sometimes, It is important to be healthy, not for your sake but for others sake.
What you get is the bonus.
:slight_smile:

2 Likes

That might be easier said than done these days, since the tendency is to go to extremes, whether it be low-carb or low-fat.

While low-carb diet advocates are correct about avoiding simple carbohydrates like table sugar, low-fat diet advocates are correct about avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol as well. Saturated fat, cholesterol, and simple carbs are bad for our health, for various reasons.

Instead of going for an “extreme” diet, whether it be low-carb or low-fat, why not eat a diet that is based on the right kinds of fats and the right kinds of carbs? What matters more to our overall health is the sources of fats and carbs we are eating, not avoiding carbs and fats entirely.

At the end of the day, a calorie is a calorie:

We conclude that a calorie is a calorie. From a purely thermodynamic point of view, this is clear because the human body or, indeed, any living organism cannot create or destroy energy but can only convert energy from one form to another. In comparing energy balance between dietary treatments, however, it must be remembered that the units of dietary energy are metabolizable energy and not gross energy. This is perhaps unfortunate because metabolizable energy is much more difficult to determine than is gross energy, because the Atwater factors used in calculating metabolizable energy are not exact. As such, our food tables are not perfect, and small errors are associated with their use.

In addition, we concede that the substitution of one macronutrient for another has been shown in some studies to have a statistically significant effect on the expenditure half of the energy balance equation. This has been observed most often for high-protein diets. Evidence indicates, however, that the difference in energy expenditure is small and can potentially account for less than one-third of the differences in weight loss that have been reported between high-protein or low-carbohydrate diets and high-carbohydrate or low-fat diets. As such, a calorie is a calorie.
http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/5/899S.full

‘King Pasenadi Goes on a Diet’: :slightly_smiling_face:

'Once when the Buddha was living at Savatthi, King Pasenadi of Kosala ate a whole bucketful of food, and then approached the Buddha, engorged and panting, and sat down to one side. The Buddha, discerning that King Pasenadi was engorged and panting, took the occasion to utter this verse: SN3.13

with metta

3 Likes

When a person is constantly mindful,
And knows when enough food has been taken,
All their afflictions become more slender
— They age more gradually, protecting their lives.

While this may seem like good advice, eating little, alone and in and of itself, will not necessarily mean you will either loose weight or be healthier. It depends on what you are eating.

Its a tricky issue, because I don’t imagine it is considered appropriate at all for monks to be “picky” about the food they get, and I imagine refusing “bad” food is generally not practiced, unless the food is legitimately quite unsuitable and is donated by someone unsure of what they are doing, like if someone donated alcohol or something (no clue why anyone would make that mistake, but the example stands).

My take on the matter now is eat a balanced meal, eat 1-3 meals a day, but reduce quantities to a level that you are definitely losing weight .

with metta

I’ve never understood why Theravada monks eat only one meal a day. Is it because they rely on alms for food?