Avoiding bad fats in foods ‘key’ to good health

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A food stall outside a hospital in Phnom Penh on July 17. Hong Menea

Sitting at a sidewalk dining table under an umbrella, a 64-year old woman from Kampong Cham’s Srei Santhor district ate only a few spoons of porridge before covering her face with a mask. She wore a sad expression as she contemplated a package of rice and dried fish.

Soun Yoy was concerned about her 19-year-old grandson’s health. He had been admitted to Calmette hospital six days prior, but was showing no signs of recovery.

Her grandson, who is in his first year in university, had been in severe pain since his arrival. While the elderly woman was concerned about her grandson, she was also worried about her diet as the expense and lack of quality of the food available near the hospital meant more there was more pressure on her and her family during an already difficult time.

After wiping away her tears, Yoy told The Post: “I eat very simple food. A small dried fish costs 5,000 riel, a small piece of jerky is 6,000 – the other dishes are greasy and tasteless. My husband, my grandson and his mother and myself spend at least 10,000 to 20,000 riel per meal, excluding any fruit or snacks for my grandson.”

The grandparents are taking care of their daughter and grandson, while also travelling back and forth from their home, where they sell tapae – fermented rice grains. They are struggling to maintain the costs of the travelling, but because they want to be near their beloved grandson they are sleeping in a building corridor near the hospital.

“This food is also affecting my health as I am diabetic and must take medication every day,” Yoy added.

A nearby food cart was filled with many colourful dishes, including salted boiled eggs, fried dishes, sour soup and stews. Women in black T-shirts were busily adding customers’ choices into plastic bags and rice into styrofoam boxes for people to take to the hospital.

A food vendor near Calmette Hospital spoke to The Post, on condition of anonymity.

“Three of us get up at around 3 or 4 am to cook rice, porridge, soups, and many other dishes. Some cook soup, some fry vegetables, some boil duck eggs. Relatives of patients are here buying from us from the early morning until 9pm in the evening,” she said.

The 30-something women has been working at the food stall for more than three years.

“Our food is available at all times because we start cooking early in the morning and keep preparing new dishes throughout the day,” she said.

“The most popular dish is fried fish, which coats 5,000 riel per fish. I have heard of some customers complaining that the food is expensive, but I think it is reasonable – we have to pay $400 per month to rent our spot, plus additional sanitation fees,” she added.

Food vendors don’t just complain about the high rental fees, with several food cart operators behind the hospital complaining about the lack of order. They said there were many vendors who behaved in a disorderly way, and some who appeared to practice poor food safety standards.

Kroeun Hou, vice president of Helen Keller International Cambodia, has been working with the government and partner organisations since 1993, primarily in combating the root causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. He stressed the importance of avoiding harmful bacteria in food.

“I’m not a sanitation expert, but it is widely known that when we consume food that is not prepared hygienically, it is more likely to transmit bacteria or worms,” he said.

“The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Rural Development and partner organisations are concerned about the importance of food hygiene, especially when it came to street food, and the health ministry has issued strict guidelines,” he added.

Besides hygiene concerns from bacteria and germs that are found on foods that are not cooked properly, an unhealthy diet can also be the root cause of many other health problems.

Dr. Sum Satha, a Fellow of the American College of Endocrinology, spoke about the dangers of fatty foods, especially in relation to cooking methods.

He told The Post that fats can be divided into several categories; some are good, while some are extremely bad.

Fat is one of the most important macronutrients in a human’s diet. People need fat to support their daily lives. Besides providing energy, fat also supports the body in building cell membranes in the body.

Another function of fat is to dilute vitamins in the body. Some are only soluble in fat and won’t be absorbed into the bloodstream. Fat also plays a role in hormonal synthesis.

He said fats are also divided into three types: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.

Unsaturated fats are fats that people can consume the most of without harming their health. They come in two forms: poly unsaturated and mono unsaturated, and can be found in olive, cereal and sunflower oil.

“Saturated fats, such as animal fats and coconut oil, are not good when we consume too much of them, so we avoid doing so. The real issue with fats comes from the method of cooking them. It is all too easy for both kinds to be converted into trans fats,” he said.

“Trans fats are really bad for us, because they seriously affect the coronary arteries. When we prepare food on a hot stove and fry or deep fry it, the fat in the pan will eventually turn into trans fat due to chemical reactions and heat,” Satha added.

Therefore, food that is fried in fat should be avoided – whether dining at a five star hotel or a street vendor, the method of cooking is very important.