Four health aspects to keep in mind when living in Phnom Penh

    Being an expat in Phnom Penh is both a pleasure and a challenge. Expats need to adjust to cultural and climatic change when arriving in Cambodia. From a health and nutritional viewpoint there are some clear areas that can affect an expats waistline and health when migrating to the lifestyle in Phnom Penh. Here is the four main aspects you should keep in mind when living in Phnom Penh.

    The first, stay hydrated. Our bodies are 75% water so staying hydrated is essential for all bodily processes and functions. The human brain is made up of 95% water, blood is 82% and lungs 90%. A mere 2% drop in our body’s water supply can trigger signs of dehydration: fuzzy short-term memory, trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on smaller print.

    In addition, dehydration is often mistaken as a feeling of hunger, prompting individuals to eat more when really all they need is to hydrate, resulting in overeating. In hot climates it is essential that expats increase their water consumption. There is no one answer to the question of how much water is sufficient. We each need a different amount depending on age, sex, size, composition, etc. The best rule to follow is that of clarity: your urine should be ‘clearish’ or have a slightly yellowy tinge in colour.

    The second, try to avoid Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG is widely used in cooking in Cambodia as a flavour enhancer. The risks associated with ingesting MSG are simple and straightforward: brain damage, endocrine disorders (obesity and reproductive disorders), behaviour disorders, adverse reactions, and neurodegenerative disease. Try to avoid MSG wherever possible. MSG in Khmer is “bijeang” (also known as “ma sao soup”). So simply ask for NO BIJEANG  (in khmer you say “ot york bee-jeng”) when ordering any food and at best it will not be used and at worst the quantity used will be reduced.

    The third, limit your alcohol consumption. Alcohol is the second highest energy-providing nutrient (7kcal per gram) behind fat (9kcal per gram). Phnom Penh has a very active nightlife and social environment with eating and drinking out being so affordable. People generally increase their alcohol consumption with moving to Phnom Penh due to the lower cost of living, great evening weather and social opportunity. Alcohol has an adverse effect on weight gain in a number of ways; 1) increased energy consumption, 2) causes dehydration, 3) affects liver function (one of the main roles of the liver is to metabolize/’burn’ fat within the body), 4) weakens & poisons the immune system, to name just a few. Try to moderate your alcohol consumption in line with recommended limits.

    The last thing you should try to avoid over consuming is sugar and refined grains. White rice is the foundation of the local cuisine. Our bodies’ process refined grains and sugar into energy very quickly and if there is no energy requirement this energy is then quickly converted into fat and stored. Through evolution Europeans are not ‘made’ to metabolize large quantities of grain, being more likely to be protein or mixed metabolic types. Furthermore, if you eat out (especially at Khmer restaurants) you can guarantee sugar has been added to your curry, sauce, peanuts, juice, smoothie, etc. The sugar and refined carbohydrate situation is the reason diabetes is a wide spread problem in Cambodia. To keep a check on your blood sugar levels I recommend when ordering drinks ask for no sugar, ask to substitute rice for a side salad or vegetables and limit consuming curries or heavily sauces meals.

    If you can control and moderate these four aspects of Phnom Penh lifestyle you will acclimatise easier, help maintain your weight and decrease your risk of falling prey to sickness or poor performance.

    Phil Kelly
    May 14th, 2012
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