Cambodians can't live on rice alone, said Jenny Busch-Hallen, a nutritionist with
the World Health Organization.
But many try. Malnutrition is a plague throughout the country, partly because of
lack of food and partly because many people don't know the components of a healthy
Droughts during the 2004-5 harvest made this year particularly devastating to nutrition,
limiting even rice supplies in many areas.
"The staple food here is rice - most adults eat 500 grams of cooked rice a day,"
Busch-Hallen said. "It provides energy."
Though access to the starch is essential, she cautioned that overly relying on rice
also has adverse effects. In a country where nearly half of all children are underweight
and 44 percent stunted, countless individuals are also affected by iodine, vitamin
A and iron deficiencies brought on by unbalanced nutrition.
The typical diet of rice, with just a small amount of meat and vegetables, often
doesn't offer a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
Lack of iron is an especially pressing problem, with around 63 percent of children
under five suffering from anemia, according to national statistics from 2000. In
the same year, 66 percent of pregnant women and 58 percent of non-pregnant women
were also anemic, Bush-Hallen said.
"In the normal Cambodian diet, it's difficult to meet iron requirements unless
you make a special effort," she said. "If people eat vitamin C with certain
fruits and vegetables, it can become easier for their body to absorb the iron."
Infants are particularly susceptible to nutrition deficiencies because they mainly
eat rice porridge, or bobor. The infants' version of the popular dish includes few
extras and is often too thin, so kids fill up on the water.
"People can improve the nutritional quality by adding more meat and vegetables
to bobor," Busch-Hallen said. "And the porridge should be thick - we tell
them it should stick to the spoon."
Considering a proper diet is necessary for both physical and mental development,
she said the Ministry of Health and other organizations are working to improve nutrition.
But they must address both supply and education challenges.
"Many people will report that they don't have trouble with access to food,"
Busch-Hallen said. "But then when we ask them what they've eaten in the last
24 hours, it's not enough."