While Cambodia’s conveniences can often result in unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits, AsiaLIFE has it covered with tips to maintain a nutritious diet and stave off sickness. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Charles Fox.
At first glance, the Kingdom’s advantages when it comes to food seem endless. An abundance of street-side vendors serve up heaping plates – or plastic bagfuls – of cheap fried noodles; new restaurants boasting tasty cuisine from around the world open on a near-weekly basis; and a majority of eateries provide free delivery.
Though low costs and ease of access may be welcome aspects to life in Cambodia, particularly for expats, these blessings can become a curse to health and nutrition.
“Eighty percent of people gain weight when they move here,” estimates professional personal trainer and owner of the Protein Shop, Fredrik Carlsward. “A lot of that is attributed to diet changes.”
Street food, while quick and easy, can be packed with trans fats, MSG and refined starches, giving an initial feeling of fullness but offering little nutrition, according to Sally Jane Douglas, raw food chef and founder of Fed for Wellness, which provides consulting on plant-based menus.
“Like many Asian countries with an abundance of rice and noodles, people living in Cambodia can miss out on eating an adequate amount of fruits, vegetables and healthy non-refined grains,” she says.
Many default to meals packed with refined carbohydrates – such as pasta and white bread – which spike insulin due to their high glycaemic index (GI), leaving people feeling lackadaisical, then hungry a short time later.
“Food should not have this effect on us; it should energise us,” says Douglas. Processed foods, too, pose a threat, and experts say to examine all labels carefully, even if they are branded as ‘healthy’. “If you can’t pronounce it, why ingest it?”
It’s also common for sugar intake to increase in Cambodia. “Sugar is by far our worst enemy,” says Carlsward, who often removes sugar as a first step of nutrition plans for his clients. He says added sugar is often hidden in many Cambodian foods, including rice, smoothies and even fruits that have been dusted with the sweetener.
Another common mistake is getting in the habit of eating out and drinking alcohol. “One beer isn’t that bad, but who has one beer here?” says Carlsward. “The whole social community [revolves] around going out for a drink or dinner. Alcohol is always in the picture. I think that’s the biggest trap.”
He adds that alcohol not only has many hidden calories, especially cocktails, but when combined with food, forces your body to first process the alcohol, and store food fats and carbs.
Bad eating decisions can result in high cholesterol and heart disease, hormone imbalances and obesity, claims Douglas. “We must remember that what we feed our body impacts our ability to function,” she says. “A healthy gut is key to good health.”
Though many people are uninformed about proper nutrition, Carlsward says the majority still know better yet simply fail to make the effort. “It falls down to people’s laziness. Most people know but don’t care, or don’t have time to care.”
But while habits die hard, there is hope for taking back control of your eating, even in Cambodia. Professionals say the majority of change comes down to common sense, and eating most foods in moderation through a balanced diet.
To increase energy levels and enable weight loss, it is crucial to stay active, whether through running, biking or joining a gym – particularly in Phnom Penh, where walking is an all-but-lost art. But exercise is only part of the equation. “Six packs are not made in the gym,” says Carlsward. “It’s actually 80 percent made in the kitchen, 20 percent in the gym.”
Cooking at home is one crucial step. Carlsward recommends upping low-GI foods, such as broccoli and cauliflower, adding healthy fats from avocados and fish, and replacing high-GI carbs with whole-wheat alternatives, which are becoming more available in country. Particularly for singles, taking one day a week to cook then freezing leftovers can save time and decrease temptation to splurge on takeaways.
Douglas suggests moving towards a whole food diet, by using fresh produce, grains and legumes to prepare salads, curries and stir-fries. Cambodia also offers plentiful tropical fruit that can be incorporated into meals.
Coconut milk offers B vitamins, iron, selenium, calcium and magnesium, and bananas – when peeled and frozen – can add a creamy texture to smoothies in place of dairy.
Increasing your fluids not only helps with combatting the heat, but also impacts your metabolism, says Carlsward, who recommends three litres per day and adding electrolytes through coconut juice or Royal D.
Eating more often – taking in healthy snacks or supplements every three hours – also keeps metabolism high, he claims, staving off desires to indulge in bigger meals. “Don’t be afraid to eat.”
Perhaps the most important tool to retake the reins is, simply, Google. With a wealth of information at your fingertips, there is no excuse to remain unaware when it comes to nutrition and healthy eating.
“Self-led learning is the most effective form of empowerment,” says Douglas. “Do your research and become informed about what is harmful and what is beneficial for your body.”