Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 11 News List

Fatter Thais turn to slimming centers


Thais exercise at a fitness club in a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, last Friday.


Thailand, known for its tasty food yet slim people, is getting fatter -- a trend that's creating a new market for high-tech weight loss therapies aimed at portly people who want to shed the kilos.

A commuter munching on a fatty breakfast roll at a busy downtown intersection need only glance up to see a slimming center billboard showing success stories in skimpy outfits flaunting their trim frames.

Across town, rotund Thais can begin the day strapped into rubber weight-loss suits at a high-tech gym, or sweating off the fat at one of Bangkok's many spas.

The boom in such treatments is partly driven by pressure to emulate noodle-thin movie stars, but also by a growing incidence of obesity.

"We eat more fat now ... compared with the traditional Thai food, which has a lot of vegetables," says Chaicharn Deerochanawong, a diabetes consultant who works for the Ministry of Public Health.

"In the past we did not eat a lot and we exercised a lot," says Chaicharn, who partly attributes the obesity levels to the increase in Western-style fast food outlets.

A ministry study in 2003 found that 33.8 percent of females and 31.5 percent of males were obese, a 50 percent rise from 1998.

The study focused on body mass index, which assesses a person's weight relative to height. It used tougher standards than those employed by the World Health Organization, which means many of the people considered obese in Thailand might merely be overweight in other countries.

The problem in Thailand is similar to many other developing Asian countries -- burgers, donuts and cream-topped lattes are replacing home-cooked meals, while a growing number of office workers are sitting immobile at desks all day.

This is causing waistlines to expand, but also creating a market for a huge number of slimming treatments and high-tech gyms.

One such gym is The Bodhi, which opened in December 2005 and at first glance looks more like the set of a science fiction film.

Tranquil music pipes into the low lit room, while Thais in rubber suits run on treadmills or lie on beds, their lower bodies encased in plastic. In the corner, a woman jiggles on a vibrating plate.

General manager Betty Kittichaiwong says that the German-made machines with names like "Vacunaut" and "Hypoxi Trainer" use vacuums to draw blood to areas where the client wants to burn fat, such as the stomach or hips.

"I had a personal trainer, it took two-and-a-half hours to get a workout. I thought there must be a better way. You still get your exercise, but spend less time in the gym with the same effect," Betty enthuses.

She claims The Bodhi gives the equivalent of a two-and-a-half hour workout in just 30 minutes, and that is what attracts customers like Vachara Phanchet, a 45-year-old entrepreneur.

"I work hard in my business," Vachara said. "To be able to shed off the unnecessary fat and make your muscles firmer, The Bodhi is a solution that would be less time-consuming to achieve this purpose."

For those who do not fancy paying 20,000 baht (US$580) a month to be strapped into a rubber suit filled with 400 suction cups, there are plenty of other options.

The Slim Up Centre is one of the most prominent, with billboards across Bangkok showing before and after shots of formerly frumpy women transformed into unrecognizable but ravishing beauties.

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