I have just returned from an amazing trip through Cambodia and Vietnam.

Cambodia and Vietnam are both places of great beauty and indescribable horrors. The people; even though they have been through so much welcomed us with genuine smiles. As a nutritionist, one thing that I noticed very quickly was the difference in attitudes towards food between us and the locals.

Fresh fruit and vegetable market

In many western countries where we often eat meals that have been stored in the fridge, freezer, packet or fast food take-away that have been altered by additives and other chemicals to make the food saltier or sweeter and preservatives to allow it to be stored on the shelf for years, we often have no regular experience of “real fresh food”.

Even though for most of us in the western world, food is plentiful, many have great emotional attachments to food, some of the things we use food for are: to celebrate, to console, to relieve boredom, to express love, to numb our pain and to fill up the emotional voids. It is not uncommon to meet someone who is addicted to food, or addicted to certain foods such as chocolate, potato chips or soft drinks. Weight problems and eating disorders are also very common. Where did we go wrong?

We have unnatural relationships with food, and often eat until we are bursting without even noticing that we have had had enough, we no longer listen to our bodies and know what we need. You only have to watch how people behave at an all you can eat buffet to observe this in action. In Australia, I recently observed a child of 5 years old telling her grandma (after she had just eaten a whole small pizza) that her “tummy was full and she had no room” for the plate of hot chips sitting in front of her. Grandma’s response was “I thought you were a big girl”, therefore encouraging the child to ignore her body and the message it was giving her and learn that big girls must overeat! I was horrified, grandma would have meant no harm, and this was obviously taught to her at some stage too. She didn’t eat the chips but if she hears the same message consistently enough she will eventually learn to ignore the messages from her body. Can you see how harmful it is to give a child the message of not listening to their body or their instincts?

In Cambodia and Vietnam the food was wonderful, always fresh and tasty. The locals go to the fresh food market three times a day and buy what they need for the next meal. They don’t overeat; they eat until they are satisfied and no more.

Fried tarantula

When I asked our Cambodian tour guide what his favourite food was, his answer was quite profound. He didn’t really have a favourite. He explained that when you are truly hungry, any food is good. As well as all of the usual fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, they also eat cockroaches, spiders and pretty much everything else, there is no waste. Eating is about nourishing the body with fuel to function – that is all.

The student was ready and my teacher had appeared in the form of a Khmer (Cambodian) tour guide,  while I don’t think I will be eating cockroaches or tarantula any time soon, I can’t help but think that we have so much to learn from these people who only eat fresh real food and only eat what they need.

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