Coping in Cambodia: from “wellness” to “nam bai”

I returned from Cambodia just a few days ago, and have resorted to lounging about in my PJs whilst I slowly recover from the jet lag and reverse culture shock that follows partying in Phnom Penh and overnight flights back to reality. In my glorious relaxation efforts, I stumbled across an article on VICE by Ruby Tandoh (remember her from GBBO? Of course you do) entitled ‘The Unhealthy Truth Behind ‘Wellness’ and ‘Clean Eating”. The piece immediately resonated with me, and with my experiences in Cambodia. I wanted to grab a megaphone and shout to the world to read this article, but then I remembered that I live in a sleepy village in rural Norfolk and so no one would hear me anyway, hence why I’m writing about it now instead.

Four years ago, under the grip of anorexia nervosa, my health suffered and I became extremely ill. I was awfully thin, my hair started falling out, downy hair was growing all over my body, and sleeping became problematic. I was always emotional, and cried on a daily basis at school. My anxieties grew, and I would have to sit outside the exams office to “calm down” before every GCSE examination. My social life was ruined as I was too ill to go to parties or continue playing hockey, netball and cheerleading, and even when I was in “recovery” I had an awful time at Latitude Festival as I was too scared of the calories in alcohol to drink and was in bed by the time the night life had started.

Fast forward four years and I’m a beacon of health and happiness, with a BMI higher than the minimum needed to be deemed “healthy” and a brighter complexion. Except that’s not really the case. I’ve received no help or support at all since my BMI reached 18.5 and I was discharged from CAMHS in January 2014… but that’s not to say I’ve really been fine. After “recovering” I still struggled massively with my eating habits and my body image, and began binge eating and purging. Eventually I purged less and less, to the point where I’d only do it once even few months if I was really upset with myself over something. I hadn’t found a healthy, balanced diet where I could enjoy things in moderation, but a diet where I’d flip from “healthy” to “unhealthy” foods and follow a salad with a dessert of an entire packet of biscuits.

Then in 2015 I found “wellness”. Ella Mills (née Woodward) of Deliciously Ella fame was a guiding light in a moment of horror. Yes, I can eat cake after all! In recent months especially, the “wellness” trend has well and truly taken off. All of a sudden half of my friends are spiralizing vegetables for whatever-vegetable-etti and Instagramming their picture-perfect avocado on toast. I’m aware that my cynicism is hypocritical when just two days ago I spilt black coffee all over my clean bedding whilst trying to get that perfect avo toast shot for my own social media. Ella’s “counting goodness not calories” philosophy felt like the perfect antidote to my teenage years spent obsessing over numbers (much like Ruby Tandoh, I too was a maths-nerd who relished keeping track of the number of calories that I had consumed and burned on a given day), and yet this new “lifestyle” was just as restrictive and confining, not to mention expensive. The popular wellness books and blogs claim to be easy to follow, but the reality is very different. It’s no wonder figures such as Ella and the Hemsleys are so posh, when every sweet recipe requires a box of medjool dates and a tonne of nuts. I for one don’t have the time, energy or patience to whip up Hemsley + Hemsley’s 18-ingredient Huevos Rancheros with Guacamole recipe for breakfast.

The “wellness gurus” (think Ella Mills, Madeleine Shaw, Amelia Freer, the Hemsley sisters and many others) all shun many things, and even disagree amongst themselves. Ella doesn’t eat meat, and even claims that peanuts are fungal, whilst the Hemsley sisters are begging us to “boil our bones” (seriously they eat bone broth All. Of. The Time.) Most of them tell us that refined sugar and gluten are the enemies, and yet there is so much conflicting evidence and research regarding such views. Yes, perhaps refined sugar in large quantities is a bad thing, but in moderation it’s not going to kill anyone. For coeliac suffers gluten is extremely harmful and problematic, but in healthy individuals it’s just another protein source, and yet it has been marketed as satanic in recent months. I was particularly taken-aback by Ruby Tandoh talking about pleasure… as a child, I never thought about calories or sugar or gluten as I tucked into slices and slices of my mum’s freshly baked cakes at the weekend, or snacked on white toast and butter if I was peckish. And yet I was an extremely happy and healthy child, and remained naturally thin until the onset of my eating disorder around the age of 14. I never had problems with my weights or teeth whilst eating that way, and I didn’t obsess over food like I do now. When I try to eat “healthily” and start my day with avocado on rye bread and snack on medjool dates with almond butter, I usually find myself at 10pm reaching for the biscuit jar and devouring nearly a whole packet of Rich Tea or Digestives, dunking each and every one in a cup of tea or coffee.

Spending three months living as a volunteer in rural Cambodia was extremely challenging for me. Whilst living with a local family who spoke no English, I was forced to eat whatever I was served at least twice a day. As someone who would normally avoid anything “white” or processed at all costs, the idea of eating white rice at least two times a day scared me (they say “nam bai” (eat rice) for a reason). Khmer people cook with a lot of sugar and MSG, and so the idea that there was hidden “nasties” in my food threaded my veins with fear from the very beginning.

One of the biggest elements of eating disorders is the need and desire for control, and for me the obsessive controlling of portions and calories morphed into controlling what types of food I ate after recovery. It is this very reason that I am so sceptical when people such as Deliciously Ella and Liana Werner-Gray claim that their books have helped people “recover” from EDs or when suffers claim that turning to vegetarianism/veganism/wellness “saved” them. The need for control never really goes away after an eating disorder, and I worry that more and more sufferers are simply replacing one disorder (I.E. anorexia or bulimia) with another (orthorexia). This idea is somewhat problematic as health care professions are poor at defining and treating anorexia and bulimia, let alone orthorexia. Essentially orthorexia is a condition concerning an obsession over eating foods that are considered healthy, and so the lines between “wellness” and “clean eating” and illness are more blurred than ever.

I craved “healthy” food almost every day in Cambodia, and I regularly looked at recipes and Instagram photos, practically drooling over the idea of a vegan raw cheesecake and an almond milk latte on arrival back in the UK. And yet the food was… fine. Whilst I wouldn’t choose to eat white rice usually, let alone to drown the bland taste with soya sauce that CONTAINED WHITE SUGAR, I had as much energy – if not more – than I did at home. Despite sugary market snacks of deep fried donut twists coated in layers of icing sugar, coconut wraps (rice, coconut and sugar in white flatbread), banana candy and Oreos, I came home thinner than I left. Perhaps biking to work everyday helped (I rarely exercise at home), or perhaps it’s because I wasn’t constantly emotionally eating or snacking out of boredom as my life was preoccupied with more important things like poverty surveys, data input and personal case studies. Either way, a diet of mainly white white and sugar did not leave me fat and spotty… I’ve returned home with a slightly flatter stomach and clearer skin than before. It is this reason why I believe that there is some truth in Ruby Tandoh’s argument regarding pleasure. If we’re happy, we’re probably healthier too. Cambodia gave me three whole months to look after myself, to get over broken relationships and the stress of everyday life, to spend time with new friends and explore a new surrounding and read books in hammocks with minimal contact with the outside world.

I might not have changed the world and contributed vastly to Cambodia’s international development on my volunteering placement, but Cambodia has contributed something to my life. The lessons I have learnt are invaluable. I’ve learnt the art of losing, to let go of stress and negativity and people that leave me emotionally exhausted. I’ve learnt that obsessing over my body, how I look and the foods that I eat will not make me a happier or healthier person. And most of all, I’ve learnt that it’s A-OK to eat refined foods, cakes, sugar and treats, and that I don’t need to – and shouldn’t – “eat clean” 24/7.

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  1. I also read the article ‘The Unhealthy Truth Behind ‘Wellness’ and ‘Clean Eating” and found it extremely relatable! I have been in recovery from Orthorexia for a few years now. The eating disorder wasn’t caused by a need to be the skinniest, but a desire to eat clean and pure, and to be “fit”. It really frustrates me when I read these books that are meant to be recovery stories, but wind up being another form of disordered eating.

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