Is it the gene or the cuisine? (Can Filipino food heal our broken hearts)

In 2016 in Norway, while I was working on THE NEW FILIPINO KITCHEN: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe, I posted a question on the Facebook group page of Norsk-Filippinsk Nettverk (Norwegian-Filipino Network):

“In Norway, #FilipinoFood is found almost nowhere, while Thai food is found almost everywhere. Why?”

To put this question into context, Filipinos, one of the top ten immigrant populations in Norway, outnumber Thai immigrants in the land of the fjords.

Seconds after I hit the “post” button, my laptop pinged, and pinged for over a hundred times more. My question has unexpectedly spurred an avalanche of comments, which snowballed into heated debates. Comments, a few complimentary, some constructive and others, well, let’s say neither complimentary nor constructive, were flung.

There was one comment (in Norwegian) that planted the seed that had grown into the follow-up to The New Filipino Kitchen. The comment translates to English as: “Heart disease, diabetes, kidney and liver failure are almost an epidemic in the Philippines. There is reason to believe that this is due to the food, lack of vegetables in the diet, and over-salting and over-sweetening.”

Was this an unfounded opinion or a factual statement? It’s true that heart disease, diabetes, and kidney and liver failures are reaching epidemic proportions in the Philippines, but doesn’t that also hold true in many other countries, including Thailand?

Further research brought me to studies that see higher prevalence of hypertension among Filipino American men and women compared to other ethnic communities within the United States. Too much salt in the diet, which included traditional Filipino food, was identified as a contributing factor along with smoking, alcohol, physical inactivity and migration-associated stress. Add the lack of culturally tailored health interventions (have you ever seen a Filipino cookbook in the healthy food category or Filipinos represented in health and wellness?) and we have an unrelenting problem of pandemic-like proportions.

Reports show that more Filipino Americans are in “poorer health” than white folks and three times more likely to be obese or overweight. Filipino Americans are also two times more likely than white folks to have high blood pressure (hypertension), a condition that increases the likelihood of heart disease and raises the risk of dying from COVID-19 two-fold.  (Possibly one of the reasons why a disproportionate and heart-wrenching number of Filipinos in the U.S. and the U.K. succumb to the coronavirus.)

Genetics plays a role in the likelihood of developing heart problems. So does the food we eat. Food is not the sole determinant of health but it sure is a huge one. While we can’t do much to change our genes, we can do a lot to change what we eat.

It’s true that many Filipino dishes are by default salty and sweet, not to mention fatty. Does this mean that Filipino food has no place in the health and wellbeing market?

An article on Healthline lists the top 10 healthiest cuisines. I mention this not because Philippine cuisine is on the list ( because it isn’t), but because every one of the ten has dishes that, by any standard, can’t be categorized as healthy. Let’s take Greek, for example, which leads the pack. As long as you stick to fakes, a lentil soup or a Greek salad, for instance, and avoid spanakopita, a spinach pie loaded with butter and fat or a greasy shawarma & gyro pita sandwich, then you’re doing your heart a favor. A close second is Japanese, known for its healthy preparations of seafood and vegetables. On the flip side, it’s tainted with deep-fried tempuras and noodle dishes laden with heavy doses of sodium.

To explore what Filipino food is in light of what is generally considered as evidence-based heart-healthy eating, I asked Filipino chefs and cooks around the world to submit recipes (and of course personal narratives, but that’s for another post).  I received no shortage of healthy Filipino food recipes!  The fact is, a cuisine is healthy as long as the people who eat or cook the food opt for the right dishes, ingredients, and preparation. You can’t go wrong using native Philippine cooking techniques, such as inihaw (grilling), pinais (cooked in leaves), nilaga (boiled or stewed), and kinilaw (raw cooked in vinegar). We have a wealth of ensaladas, we have pinakbet, dinuyduy, fresh lumpia, tinolang manok (chicken soup), sinigang (soured soup), and so on, which, as long as we don’t go overboard with the bagoong (shrimp paste), patis (fish sauce), or salt make exciting additions to anyone’s heart-healthy lifestyle.

Even the more popular stars of the cuisine like adobo, lumpia, pansit, sisig, and lechon, with a smidge of creativity, can be part of a heart-healthy diet. As I discover, there are many ways to develop flavor without the over-use of sodium, sugar, and fat.

So, to the question of whether the cuisine is healthy or not, there is no broad-brush answer.  Personally, I believe that there’s no such thing as an unhealthy cuisine–just unhealthy food choices. And to the question, “Can Filipino food heal our broken hearts?” We shall see. The work in progress–a collection of heart-healthy stories and recipes from Filipino kitchens around the world will attempt to answer that question.

I am grateful to the following brilliant women & men who have already contributed to the heart-healthy Filipino food project (in alphabetical order):

AC Boral (U.S.)

Amormia Orino (U.S.)

Benedicto Marinas (U.S.)

Carlo Lamagna (U.S.)

Cheryl Baun & Paolo Mendoza (U.S.)

Christiana Marie Bonilla Cunanan (U.S.)

Cynthia Malaran aka DJ CherishTheLuv (U.S.)

Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young (U.S.)

Evan Cruz (U.S.)

Francis Maling (U.S.)

Francis Sibal (U.S.)

Ganthel Vergara (U.S.)

Glen Ramaekers (BE)

Grace Guinto (AU)

Helen Orimaco-Pumatong (CA)

Jennifer Fergesen (U.S.)

Jeremy Villanueva (UK)

Joel & Rachel Javier (U.S.)

Kathy Vega Hardy (U.S.)

Liren Baker (U.S.)

Mae Williams (UK)

Margarita Manzke (U.S.)

Maria Garbutt-Lucero (UK)

Mario Llorente Babol (ES)

Marvin Braceros (IT/PH)

Meshelle Armstrong (U.S.)

Minerva Manaloto-Lott (PH)

Mostra Coffee: Beverly, Jelynn, Mike and Sam (U.S.)

Queenie Laforga (U.S.)

Rezel Kealoha (U.S.)

RG Enriquez (U.S./PH)

Ria Dolly Barbosa (U.S.)

Roger Asakil Joya (NO)

William Mordido (NZ)

Zosima Margareth Fulwell (UK)

Special thanks, too, to my friend Doris Somme (NO) for sharing her recipe for a special treat.

by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri (UK)


THE NEW FILIPINO KITCHEN: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe

2 thoughts on “Is it the gene or the cuisine? (Can Filipino food heal our broken hearts)

  1. A definite YES!
    It is all about the cuisine & creativity of the chef!
    Not to mention the vegetables that are locally grown have high nutritional/ medicinal values. Areas of the Philippines that are less affluent don’t use a lot of butter, or sugar (and if we use sugar – mostly cane) because of the high cost, but because these fresh vegetables are grown at the backyard, minimal salt to just enhance the flavor will do.
    Because of the warm climate we do a lot of pickling of food from different regions that are actually very good probiotic health benefits.
    Most of our snacks are grains, root crops & locally grown fruits using coconut milk/oil which is far more nutritious than yeast based, butter rich deserts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YES, Filipino cuisine can be healthy, all depends aon how we prepare it. I always say a sounding YES when folks ask me if our cuisine is healthy…cause folks in general know only of the fried stuffs or the fatty pork dishes that we have. I would even say that our regional capampangan cuisine is healthy using much tomatoes in our stews, with our fish and veggie combos. I can go on and on, I will stand with you on this Heart Healthy Filipino food project.

    Liked by 1 person

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