One thing I didn't expect would happen in Indonesia was that I would get fat.

I come from France, a country where we use sugar, syrup, butter, cream, sauces or oil in almost every single dish. And yet, in Paris my weight was a steady 70 kilograms.

While in Indonesia, I reached almost 90 kilos within a year, even though I was eating less. I tried to understand how it could happen, and I came up with a few possible explanations. Here is the 6-step story of how I became fat in Indonesia:

Step 1: Eating Indonesian Food All The Time
I love Indonesian food and I think it is one of the most underrated cuisines in the world. Needless to say, when I'm in Indonesia, I eat Indonesian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The problem is that most dishes are extremely fat. Ingredients are rarely boiled in water, they are fried, sautéed, stir-fried or cooked in coconut milk, for instance Beef Rendang or Gulai.

Coconut milk has a 20% fat content, the equivalent of light cream. This percentage raises further as the water evaporates during cooking. In the end, a meal like Nasi Padang can easily reach 1000 kcal and 80 grams of fat (see here). That's the equivalent of a Double Whopper with Cheese from Burger King AND a can of Coca-Cola. Even a simple Nasi Goreng (without fried chicken) has 740 calories (see here)!

Some Indonesian dishes like Gado-Gado or Tempeh are considered more healthy. Yet if you look closely, they aren't.

Gado-Gado is a salad with boiled vegetables, rice and ... peanut sauce, which is made with fried peanuts, sugar and coconut milk. A typical serving of the sauce (100 grams) will have 300kcal and 25 grams of fat (see: Is Peanut Sauce Healthy?). So unless you eat it with almost no sauce, Gado Gado will also make you fat.

Tempeh is a healthy food too, but it is usually served deep-fried. If you want a fruit salad, you can also expect it will come with copious amounts of sugar and sauce.

Step 2: Doing My Groceries in Convenience Stores
When you live in Jakarta, bad food habits are easy to catch. The Government is obsessed with alcohol, but it seems unaware of the risks of high fat and high sugar diets.

Enter a convenience store in Indonesia and all you see are candies, sodas, juices, chips, cookies, ice-creams (and cigarettes). In a Circle K in Jakarta, I counted only a handful of products that didn't have added sugar or fat: Water, eggs, rice, milk, pasta, flour and oatmeal. All the rest was industrial, heavy-processed food.

For comparison purposes, this is what the equivalent of a 7-Eleven or Circle K looks like in France:
You'll find fruits, vegetables, salads, bread, dairy products, meat, pasta, sauces, condiments, eggs, etc. Actual, nutritious food. The chips, candies and biscuits section will take about half a shelf each. Oh, and yes you can buy alcohol and wine.

Even with the best intentions in the world, it is much more difficult to eat well in Indonesia when healthy food is harder to find.

Step 3: Blending in the Snack Culture
Indonesians have a great snack culture: They love to gather, discuss, smoke and try one of the hundreds of snacks available in the country. They even have a word for that: "nongkrong" (≈ hangout).
If you have Indonesian colleagues, you'll know that people here never stop eating, especially in the office. Whenever someone comes back from holiday, you can be sure she/he will bring a few of the local snacks from there. It's a fun tradition, but again more fat and more calories: 104 grams of "Krupuk" (Prawn Crackers) contain over 600 kilocalories. And trust me it does not take long for me to eat that. Indonesian "Gorengan" (Fritters) are even worse, reaching over 220 kcal each (see here).

Step 4: Visiting Bars and Clubs as a Main Activity
Honestly, there aren't many things to do in Jakarta at night apart from hanging out with other people in restaurants, lounges, bars or clubs. It's great for your social life, but again, it means more snacks, more alcohol and more sugary drinks. A typical week means at least 2 after-work drinking session, and a night out.

Technically, I could order just sparkling water each time, but I don't. I drink juices, beers, shots, spirits with mixers, etc. And when the party end, I have no better idea than having a burger or a porridge.

Step 5: Becoming Lazy
I've never really been into sports, but when you live in Paris, you easily walk several kilometers a day because the city has proper sidewalks and the weather is pleasant.

In Jakarta I barely walk 200 meters every day. In the morning, I go to the elevator, get a taxi in the lobby that takes me directly to the lobby of my office, sit down all day, then go back home in the evening again with a taxi.

Walking can help you burn a lot of calories actually. According to this paper, a 70kg man will burn around 5kcal every minute he walks, or 300kcal an hour. So by constantly using taxis, ojeks, lifts and escalators, I should have compensated by eating less. Of course I didn't.

Step 6: Dating an Indonesian Girl
One of the reasons I didn't mind being fatter in Indonesia was that my girlfriend would keep telling me that I looked better with some extra kilos. This was not only coming from her, but from all my Indonesian colleagues and friends.

The more weight I would gain, the more I would hear: "You look good Thibaud!".

When I came back from a 2-week holiday in France where I had lost a few kilos, people asked me: "Are you ok? What happened to you?.

Many Indonesians consider that being too skinny is a sign of poverty or malnutrition. A chubby person looks happy, rich and healthy. It does not help motivating you to be more careful with your diet.

Conclusion: Why Aren't Indonesians Getting Fat?
Considering what they eat, one could be surprised there aren't more fat people in Indonesia. In the street, most Indonesians are thin, especially those from the working class.

It is not difficult to understand why. Poorer people don't take the taxi, they walk. Poorer people don't sit all day behind a desk, they do hard job and chores. Poorer people also eat and drink less, particularly alcohol, fast food, candies, cakes, etc.

Among the middle class though, I've noticed there are more and more people who are overweight, especially among the middle class. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Health, the number of people who are overweight in the country has grown from 12 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2010. That's a massive 9 points in only 3 years!

So the truth is: Indonesians are getting fat too, just like I did.

22 comments to '' How I Became Fat in Indonesia "

  1. Very true for every point I also have gained 20kg in 5 or more years and I also eat little. At least I am harder to k1dnap from the FPI

  2. its funny to hear that dating indonesian girl included. though i never ask my bf to gain or loss his weight at all :)

  3. I go to Indonesia every year and I add 6 kilo in 3 to 4 weeks...and then I watch what I eat..It is the lack of walking indeed..and the hidden carbs everywhere..

  4. Indonesian dishes full of carbs. Let's say nasi uduk for breakfast, it contains
    Noodles/rice noodles
    Potatoes (kering kentang/ perkedel)

  5. Just wait until the Lebaran Day and its ALL delicious dishes :))

  6. a study says that if you get out of your regular diet (which you had since you're a kid) might drastically change your body figure or even health. On that study showed an Indian man who moved to US and get diabetes because of the drastic diet change despite the fact that He consumed many sweets and high carb diet when he lived in India. The study suggest that our body system adapts to the diet that we had since we are in the womb. So i guess your body can't handle Indonesian food, because i know many 'rich people' who stay fit even though they barely walk to anywhere. Oh might also want to consider the fact that there are many malnourished people throughout Indonesia, so yeah, we still on the phase where health is being judge on the body fat even though those idea should be irrelevant to modern society. I was once told by a dutch lady that milk is unhealthy, it tickles me because in Indonesia milk is still considered a luxury food and we tried to fight malnourish with milk.

    Sorry for the long post :p

  7. Why did you feel the need to show a child eating at Burger King at the beginning of the article? Your entire essay demonstrates that the problems in Indonesia involve their fatty traditional foods, and specific aspects of their culture. Of course, never miss a chance to bash an American company, though.

    1. Hi Sheldon.. wow you seem a bit sensitive (or insecure)... it's a picture that illustrates glutony... Initially I was actually looking for a photo of a bule eating Indonesian food but couldn't find one that I really liked...

      It's not completely out of context though as I mention eating after clubbing burgers regularly (and I always go to BK because I don't like McMorning). I also equate Nasi Padang with a meal at BK.

      If you want to read me actually bashing American companies, you can visit this: 10 Worst Restaurants in Jakarta

  8. Hey there. Interesting post. I tend to agree with Adibah Yunisya that change of diet is what usually makes people gain weight. If I stayed on my traditional Indonesian food, I won't gain weight. It was all of those pizzas, pastas and fast foods that made me gain weight :D Oh, and I think you should look for another Gado-gado vendor because Gado-gado peanut sauce should never contain any coconut milk.

    1. Yes you're maybe right... one thing I didn't mention in the article also is that I eat more than just a normal portion... i feel still hungry otherwise so I always ask and pay for more rice, more meat, more vegetable...

    2. Ah, I don't agree with this though. Based on my knowledge, gado-gado (one with egg + potato) peanut sauce is the one that have coconut milk inside, while other vegetable dishes sauces(pecel, siomay, lotek, etc.) aren't.

  9. Hi Thibaud... Il serait peut être temps de faire un article sur des restaurants sains ou proposant des repas vegetarien à Jakarta. Il y en a quelques uns ;)

    1. Oui bonne idée as tu des recommandations?

    2. Je suis végétarien aussi et essaye de faire attention à ce que je mange en combinant avec du sport 3 ou 4 fois par semaine. Le Koi à Kemang sert beaucoup de plats intéressants, Shishà Café aussi pour tout ce qui est Méditerranéen (du Sud), Toscana, Trattoria Kuningan, sont des restaurants sérieux et réguliers dans la qualité. .

  10. Not entirely too.
    I moved from Indonesia to France (living in Paris now) and gained 4 kilos in my first 6 months.

  11. hahaha. i am Indonesian, live in France around 3 years. I am 95 kg right now!!!! 3 years ago, my weight was 80 kg. in my opinion, French food is very delicious and i really like it. (even though eating is restaurant is expensive). mostly, i am cooking or go to Restaurant Universitaire. eat in there only 3.25€ for lunch

  12. I always lose about 5+ kgs everytime I go abroad for more than 3 months.
    For me the factors are: less walking and cheaper food/take outs.

    The minimarkets aren't catering for healthy eating, I think. Maybe because it's rather harder to restock fresh products. If you want fresh fruits (which we have a lot, kind of ironic actually), it's either specialised fruit stall or wet market.

  13. Il y a quand même de + en + de gens en surpoids ici depuis les 10 dernières années, surtout les filles. .

  14. In the streets of Jakarta, you see actually a lot of fat peeps, due the junk food habit here. Go to Vietnam for example, and see what thin people are! Granted, in the country side here, they are still thin. But Jakarta man...

  15. I'm 165cm,I have the same issues as you was, I'm Indonesian but I was lived in Malaysia
    When I'm back home just for 5 month I was gain my weight 7kg, it's shocking !!!
    Last I met my bf with 52kg of my weight, but after 5 month he visit me he was shocking by my bum, looking big body and I'm feel so
    Now I seen the problem by the wealthy, my skin getting pimples, and hair fall so much, dry skin, It's worst ever !!!
    In malaysia I've ate a lot, cheap and healthy food
    In Indonesia food it is for tasty, but begin nasty and yuck !!!

  16. Indonesian food is laden with carbs. The combination of Carbs & sugar is the culprit for weight gain. You can check bigger supermarkets with a lot of healthy food items here though...Ranch Market, The Food Hall, Farmer's Market, all have sections for fresh greens, imported fruits, whole foods & items to suit any kinds of healthy diets. Try to check them out :)

  17. Conclusion: Why Aren't Indonesians Getting Fat?

    I strongly disagree with the author's closing statement. At least in Jakarta, men are not fat, but almost all women are. In fact, it's rather unusual to see women that are not fat, and then they would be almost exclusively of Chinese descent.