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In Some Cultures, a Role for Shame in Addressing Obesity?

In the Cook Islands, a physician is changing a culture that sees some of the highest rates of obesity in the world. Some of his methods are inappropriate by American standards, but effective.

Dr. Thein's ill-fated seedlings.

According to the Ministry of Health, 87 percent of the population in the Cook Islands is obese. The World Health Organization recorded rates of obesity as high as 75 percent in Nauru, Samoa, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga, and French Polynesia. According to the 2011 report, "The factors for this epidemic of obesity are a dramatic decrease in physical activity and a dependence on Western diet."

Most reports cite the need for a return to a local diet and more exercise. They do not address the barriers, psychological and practical, to behavioral change. 

How do you get a Pacific Islander who, thanks to WWII, loves canned corned beef, Spam, and rice, to start eating arugula?

While I was living in the Cook Islands, I met a clever doctor working specifically to combat obesity and its related consequences. His patients were losing weight, but his methods were far from typical by U.S. standards.

Dr. Hla Thein grew up in Burma and was educated, as are most young men, by monks. He learned English at a young age, went to medical school in Rangoon. He worked for the United Nations in Thailand with refugees from the Khmer Rouge and eventually settled in Fiji. He explicitly wanted to combat obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in the Pacific and moved to the Cook Islands to do so. He took a post that no other doctor wanted and moved to the isolated atoll of Pukapuka with a population of 450. On the three square-kilometer atoll, boats come only once every six months and planes only on government business. "Here," he says, "I have the perfect laboratory to combat obesity and associated non-communicable diseases."


Thein started by approaching diet. Pukapukans in general eat healthy with a daily diet of fish and taro. But reliance on imported foods, primarily canned corned beef, sugar, flour, and rice has steadily increased. Most Cook Islanders have spent time in New Zealand and Australia, cementing a love for KFC and McDonald's. In order to promote the local diet over the imported diet, Thein did not lecture or educate. Research has shown that education does not create behavioral change, especially in the early stages. People may know the facts but they exempt themselves from the consequences.

Instead, Thein used methods congruent with the community. To set an example, he started a garden at his home -- planting cucumbers, lettuce, bok choy, and watermelons. He gathered all the hospital staff, nurses, and even the local dentist to assist in the building of his massive garden. At first, this seemed a strange use of hospital work time. Soon, however, villagers came and gathered to watch the hospital staff gardening. Children began asking for seeds. Before long, everyone had started a home garden. The gardens didn't last because of the salt spray, the sandy soil, and lack of regular access to seeds, but the seed had been planted. People wanted to eat cucumbers.

Thein then called the island leaders together and asked them to prepare a feast using only local ingredients. He  only showed up to eat, saying little. He let the villagers take charge of preparing and presenting the local feast, which included coconut crabs, coconuts, pumpkins, fish, and taro leaves. 

localonly.jpgA feast of locally grown food

He also started shaming people. 

Presented by

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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