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.
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.
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.
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.
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!