What Makes Filipino Meals Unhealthy?
Filipinos love pork and beef. But especially pork. This is most likely a Spanish influence. The most decadent dish Filipinos have which is common to South American countries is the lechon.
Lechon is a whole pig seasoned with herbs and spices, skewered in a bamboo pit and slow roasted over coal until the skin is crispy. This is served in weddings, birthdays, town fiestas and all grand celebrations. It is very similar in concept to Hawaiian Kalua Pork.
We favor the fatty cuts of meat and consider it a perfect pork dish if there are slivers of fat in every piece which makes the meat tender and very tasty.
We love white rice. It is considered a sign of luxurious living if you can buy the whitest rice available.
Fried foods are a favorite. Crispy fried chicken pieces, fried pork chops, crispy pata, sausages. Fried fish. Even vegetables are coated in flour and fried tempura style as in ‘ukoy’ (fried shrimp and sweet potato fritters).
The traditional Filipino diet is high in cholesterol, saturated fat, refined carbs and salt.
Coronary heart disease is common in the Philippines and accounts for 17% of all deaths annually. Hypertension, diabetes, and gout are common maladies as well. According to the CIA World Factbook, the average life expectancy in the Philippines is 69.2 years. It is even lower for males at 65 years.
This does not seem so bad but if you consider that this is an average and there are a multitude of people who have strokes or heart attacks before age 50, then it does sound very concerning.
Breast cancer rates are rising. The Philippines has the highest number of breast cancer incidents among 197 countries in the world. This can be attributed to the more sedentary lifestyle, pollution especially in the cities, chemicals used in everyday lives. We cannot deny the fact that eating unhealthy food is a major cause.
But There is Hope
There are basic ways to improve your health. Exercise regularly, stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight and active lifestyle. Best of all, watch what you eat.
Filipinos love to eat but there are things you can do to make foods healthier while still retaining the tastes that make it Filipino. Following are some suggested ways to do this. If you get started on this way of thinking, you will be surprised with the many ideas you will have on how to improve your Filipino diet.
Use meat as flavoring, not the main dish.
Trim the skin and fat off chicken before cooking
Use lean cuts of meat. Refrain from using offal (intestines, liver, kidneys) for dishes as these are high in fat and cholesterol. Here I am referring more to regional delicacies than mainstream fare.
Say no to chicharron (fried pork crackling) or anything deep-fried.
- For white rice, use brown rice, barley, quinoa or bulgur wheat. You can even try cauliflower rice. With some dishes, eat salad or a vegetable side dish instead of rice.
- For pasta, use whole wheat pasta or veggie pasta.
- Add vegetables as ‘filler’ to dishes. Examples are, mongo soup with diced pork or chicken (palm-size). Add quinoa while cooking the soup to make it more filling and eliminate the need for eating it with rice.
- Bake, don’t fry. Grilling or steaming are other ways to cook without the use of too much oil.
- Reduce salt, add more herbs and spices instead. Use basil, lemongrass, oregano, cumin, paprika to make the food tasty instead of using a lot of salt.
- Reduce sugar, add cinnamon or nutmeg instead. For baked brownies, I swap 1 container of applesauce for each cup of sugar.
- Swap ingredients. For 1 eggs, use 2 egg whites. For heavy cream, use Greek yogurt. Replace or dilute coconut milk with broth, Use extra virgin olive oil instead of canola oil. For mayonnaise in sandwiches, you can use avocado instead.
- Eat fruits instead of desserts made with rice and sugar.
Examples of Healthier Filipino Foods:
Adobo with portabella mushroom – chicken adobo with portabella mushroom. You can also use hard tofu in place of or in addition to chicken or pork. You can make this with green beans mixed in.
Butternut squash with green beans – Ginataang kalabasa can be made with a mix of coconut milk and chicken broth to make it less fatty.
Pancit Bihon – stir-fried rice noodles. Make this with plenty of cut-up vegetables like celery, carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms. Use a non-stick wok so that you do not have to use a lot of cooking oil when sauteing.
Ginisang Monggo (Mung Bean Soup) – to make this healthier, I would forgo the chicharon and add more spinach.
Ginisang ampalaya (Sauteed Bitter Gourd) – the bitter gourd is a vegetable that has an interesting taste. As the name implies, it is very bitter so we coat it in salt and wash very cooking to reduce the bitterness. It is said to have a lot of medicinal properties including being anti-diabetic.
Baked lumpiang shanghai (baked egg rolls) – this is a favorite Filipino dish similar to Chinese egg rolls. This version is baked (and eaten immediately) instead of deep-fried. Ground chicken or turkey can be used instead as substitute for pork.
Pinakbet – mixed vegetables steamed in fish or shrimp sauce. Vegetables include eggplant, okra, string beans, tomatoes, chili peppers, calabaza squash, ginger, onions and garlic. You can use plain salt instead of the fish sauce or shrimp paste.
Chop Suey – this is part of American Chinese cuisine – chicken stir-fried with different kinds of vegetables.
Salmon Sinigang (salmon in soursop broth) – sinigang is a Filipino dish similar to Thailand’s tom yum soup. It is usually made with pork. This version uses salmon head but you can use salmon fillets as well. You can make it with other types of fish. Add more vegetables like zucchini squash, radish, eggplants, kale to make it even healthier,
What Do You Think?
It is awfully hard to change habits and preferences when you grew up on them and they are associated with the best moments of your life with people you love. It is especially hard when you are at a gathering and you have to resist temptation and not succumb to peer pressure.
You risk being labeled as a picky eater, a Debbie Downer, someone who does not get along with the crowd. Worse, you may be at a family gathering or dinner party and offend the person who prepared the meal. It is hard to say no to your mom or friend when she slaved over the stove all day preparing favorite dishes.
With habits, the trick is in making small manageable changes day after day until the new habit becomes part of you and you have forgotten the old bad habit. When I am at work, I eat a salad for lunch and I know that takes care of my vegetable requirements for the day. I don’t think about it and it is one less thing I have to decide on.
I wake up in the morning and make a fruit smoothie with spinach. I prepare the ingredients in a container and leave it in the refrigerator so I just grab it in the morning, put it in the blender and add almond milk. That’s breakfast and I share it with my husband and kids so they can be healthy too.
With regard to friends and family or even co-workers, you have to stick to your guns. Be nice and polite but firm. Explain that you want to live a long, healthy life and in order to do that you have to stop eating some foods. Or, if you think it is hopeless to explain yourself, just don’t say anything, get the proferred food and eat it sparingly. Eat something before you go to gatherings that you know will have tempting, unhealthy foods.
I have days when I cheat and days when I indulge but I don’t beat myself up over it. That’s just life. We just have to keep trying to make good choices day after day.
Please comment below if you have experiences about saying no to bad foods and how you dealt with it
More power to your healthy eating!
Disclaimer: The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.