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Processed foods increase health risks, Cambodia’s physicians warn

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A woman sells food outside a hospital in Phnom Penh in July. Hong Menea

Processed foods increase health risks, Cambodia’s physicians warn

Fast food, salty processed foods and sugary soft drinks are enormously popular in Cambodia today, a far cry from the locally produced vegetables and fish which sustained revious generations.

Changing lifestyles, and especially the way people eat in modern times, have led to an increase in chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Dr. Sum Satha, a specialist in diabetes, endocrine and endocrinology at Calmette Hospital and a Fellow of the American College of Endocrinology, said that people had changed the way they live and eat, in line with the rapid economic development of the Kingdom. High-calorie western foods are becoming very popular in Cambodia.

“In the past, we would have eaten rice with Khmer mixed vegetable soups like samlork or korko, and lots of fish. Now, fast food like pizza, hamburger and cheap sugary drinks are widely available. People in urban centre especially seem to be enjoying fast food more than ever,” he said.

An increase in cases of diabetes is closely related to changes in people’s diets. He acknowledged that this is a global problem, and not just limited to Cambodia.

Satha cited estimates from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) in 2019 that one in 16 Cambodian adults had diabetes.

The IDF’s data showed that in 2021, almost 600,000 Cambodians were living with this disease. It estimates that this number will surpass one million by 2045.

A recent educational video by Ros Rattanak – better known as celebrity chef Chef Nak – aimed to draw people’s attention to the idea that they should consider the health of what they are eating, and not just whether it will taste delicious.

She believed poor diets were probably responsible for more deaths in Cambodia than either alcohol or cigarettes.

“It seems like fast food is considered the trendiest thing to eat right now, but people need to be aware of the consequences of a poor diet. We can say that alcohol kills a lot of people, but if we look at the statistics, it is probably glucose that kills more people than alcohol,” she said.

Chef Nak said the current eating habits of the public appear to be based on things which were heavily processed and very sweey or salty. Eating this kind of food each day creates an addiction.

“Obviously, if they eat a spoonful of sugar today, tomorrow their bodies will need a spoon and a half,” she added.

Chef Nak recalled that in the past, when people were thirsty, they drank coffee, water or tea. Now, there are many sweet drinks on the market. She didn’t want to name any particular brand, but said that many thousands of dollars are spent advertising high-sugar drinks to the public, and especially to children.

Obesity is linked to a high-calorie diet, and contributes to an increase in diabetes.

“Excessive consumption of sugary foods and beverages increases the risk of diabetes,” said Dr. Satha.

“We need to understand the quantity and quality of the sugar in our food, and how it is prepared,” he added.

He used an apple as an example, saying that eating an apple whole or juicing it would give the same amount of sugar, but when the apple is eaten whole, it is absorbed far more slowly, and is thus less risky.

People need to know the amount and the quality of sugars in their food. The glycemic index (GI) of food is the rate it increases blood sugar when it is consumed.

To reduce the risk of diabetes, individuals should eat a low GI diet.

“Most fruit is the same. Over ripe bananas for example, have a much higher GI than under ripened ones. People need to understand how GIs work,” he said.

Dr. Chan Panhasokha, a cardiologist at Ang Duong Hospital, said diet was not the sole cause of high blood pressure or diabetes, but was one of the leading contributors.

He added that according to a recent study, if a person consumes two cans of sugary drinks a day, he or she is 20 times more likely to develop high blood sugar than someone who does not.

“Foods that we should eat more of include vegetables, fruits, protein from fish, soybeans, beans and protein in whole grains. Foods that we should eat less of include beef, pork, salty foods and sweet drinks,” he advised.

He added that people should avoid processed foods such as canned meat or tomato sauce, because they were high in sodium and contained a lot of preservatives. He urged people to pay closer attention to their health.

“Please eat a blanced diet and be sure to exercise regularly, he added.

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