You’ve heard about following the Mediterranean diet or the
Japanese diet for a long and healthy life. These cultures center around making
their food both nutritious and delicious. Can the same be said about Filipino
food? With the holiday season upon us, we’ll be eating more as we attend
parties and family gatherings. Spoiler alert: YES, there’s still hope for those
who aspire to be healthy during this time, even when you’re lining up for
second helpings of lechon at the
buffet.

Photo by Frolova_Elena

At first glance, Filipino food doesn’t seem that healthy. Just imagine some of the nation’s favorite dishes: succulent, whole-roasted pork, or tender cuts of meat swimming in salty and oily sauces, all paired with loads of white or fried rice alongside small bowls of soy sauce, patis (fish sauce), or vinegar. Even our vegetable dishes don’t seem that healthy since veggies are rarely eaten raw. Save for fresh lumpia, Filipino dishes often use vegetables sautéed with bagoong (a salty concoction made of fermented fish, shrimp, or krill) or ground pork, if they’re not overcooked in stews and soups.

You may argue that no one eats Filipino food to be healthy.
But is it reasonable to label Filipino dishes only as a treat when it’s what
millions of people eat every day, multiple times a day, because it’s what they
can afford or what they know? As with most cuisines around the world, there are
both healthy and unhealthy things about a culture’s diet.

To see how Filipino food is healthy, first let’s focus on
the unhealthy. Common cooking
techniques in Filipino dishes include frying, sautéing or “gisa”, stewing, and grilling. Frying in oil is the main culprit
when it comes to unhealthy cooking, and most Filipino recipes call for a lot of
oil.

Pan-frying or deep-frying food may have become a common
option in the Philippines for several reasons. It’s quick and easy to simply
fry food until cooked. There’s no need for an oven or a full working kitchen,
just a stove top and a pan or wok. It also gets the job done in ridding the
food of all germs until it’s safe to eat. Fried food tends to last longer, an
important quality for food in the past: a time of little to no refrigeration.
Many Filipino households today still leave food that was cooked in the morning
out on the kitchen counter or dining table the whole day, ready to serve anyone
at any moment. While leaving out fried food isn’t the best kitchen practice, it
certainly has less bad consequences.

Photo by nongphoto

Many dishes from around the Philippines rely heavily on
salt, vinegar, and sugar. Because many Filipinos have such a penchant for sweet
and salty flavor profiles, Filipino food is often high in sodium, or coupled
with sugary desserts and drinks. It doesn’t help that most Filipino dishes go
so well with white rice. Filipino soups and stews can be healthy meals on their
own, but it changes if eaten with copious amounts of white rice. Consuming
sugar is inevitable, after all it’s in everything from fruit to bread. But too
much of it can cause health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Filipinos also love to have sawsawan when eating. Common sawsawan
or condiments are patis (fish
sauce), soy sauce, Knorr or Maggi seasoning, and vinegar. Throughout their
meals, Filipinos can be adding much more sodium than necessary without giving
much notice.

Several external factors like history and media affected how
Filipinos eat. Thanks to the influence of American colonization, a large part
of the Philippines developed a love for fast food. With the help of media and
advertising, fast food is now seen as a special treat for a lot of Filipinos. Instead
of unhealthy junk food being seen as something to avoid, it’s instead become a
reward.

How our cities are laid out also plays a role in making
Filipino eating habits unhealthy. Our cities were built for cars instead of
walking or public transportation, which allowed a drive-through culture to
develop. With factors like traffic affecting us daily, many Filipinos rely on
fast food for quick and cheap meals. The convenience of a drive-through allows
you to eat without getting out of your car. Even street food, a cheap and quick
snack option for many, is often high in cholesterol and oil. However, it’s not
that effective in keeping you full for a long time. Because unhealthy options
are much more convenient, they’ve also become a staple in the Filipino diet.

Diet also depends heavily on accessibility. In urban areas,
seafood is harder to come by and vegetables are more expensive. People in rural
and fishing areas technically have more access to fish and veg, but cannot
often buy meat products and therefore rely on rice to feel full. With varying
access to different kinds of ingredients, it can be difficult to prescribe a healthy
meal for everyone to follow.

With all of these factors in mind, (and this certainly isn’t
everything) what are the healthy things about Filipino food that we should
highlight more often? One would be the fact that there are Filipino recipes that
are complete dishes on their own. Soups and stews like sinigang, pochero, or tinola are healthy, nutritious, and
filling. Just make sure to not overload on white rice, or swap it out with
brown rice or adlai instead. Refrain
from overcooking the vegetables in these soups, so as to retain as much
nutrition and vitamins.

Photo by Crystal Eye Studio

Moderation is key. There’s no need to cut out Filipino food
from your diet entirely. It’s not the end of the world to indulge in lechon or leche flan every once in a while. Just make sure it doesn’t become
a habit!

Add more fresh fruit and vegetables to your diet. Instead of
fried lumpia, opt for a fresh one instead. You can also make Filipino-inspired
wraps and salads. Consuming more salads or recipes that call for fresh veggies
and fruit will make any diet healthier. There are a bunch of Filipino cooks and
chefs out there who are putting a healthier and fresher twist to age-old
Filipino recipes. As much as possible, source your fruit and veggies well and
always make sure to wash them before cooking or eating.

Photo by Kim David

Don’t be afraid to stray away from tradition. Many old
recipes call for longer cooking times, especially regarding vegetables. This
may be because back then, it was the only way to ensure your food didn’t have
germs anymore. To maintain the nutrients in your veggies, cook them for a
shorter period of time. Veggies are best cooked by just blanching, quickly
sautéing, or dropping them in soups last.

Your grandma’s Filipino recipes can have the same flavors,
just make them easier on your body by swapping out certain ingredients for
healthier ones. Try using lean cuts of meat every once in a while, or using
olive oil instead of lard and butter.

Refrain from leaving condiments on the table. This may be
blasphemous in certain households, but it could be the trick to lessening your
sodium and sugar intake. Mindlessly reaching for soy sauce, patis, or ketchup can add unwanted
calories to any meal! At least you get to burn some calories if you have to
stand up and walk to the kitchen to get a bottle. In addition to not leaving
any condiments on the table, make sure your food is well-seasoned before
serving. That way, you won’t have to rely on sauces for extra flavor.

When eating out in Filipino restaurants, never fear! Opt for
dishes like pinakbet, tinola or sinigang, and laing to
get that Filipino fix while keeping your diet rich in vegetables.

Hopefully
with these tips, you can indulge in the Filipino dishes you love without
sacrificing your health. Let us know your healthy diet tips in the comments!

Margarita Olivares
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