Poor people suffer more from unhealthy diets. The article Obesity and Poverty: The Poorest of Us Also Weigh the Most tackles this phenomenon in the United States. In other parts of the world, especially in third world countries, the case is pretty much the same.
The Philippines is a third world country, and this is readily observable even in grocery checkout lines. There was one time when I was in line, and to pass the time I started scrutinizing the purchases of other customers. What I saw easily summed up the sorry state of nutritional awareness in the country, and households that are trying so hard to translate their hard-earned money into filling meals for huge families, peso by peso. Most people loaded up with cartloads of two items: chips and instant noodles-those dessicated nutritionally devoid processed carbs that come in cheap, brightly colored plastic packaging with large letters that herald them to be “fortified with iron” and whatnot.
The chips and noodles may be MSG-driven and teeming with empty calories but at an average of PHP 7, they constitute a filling meal when it would be too expensive to put rice and fish on the table. It’s the same bowl of noodles and the same bag of chips day in and day out, but with more than enough flavor varieties to fill in each day of the week, no one seems to mind.
Today, Filipinos spend over PHP 215.6B annually on a high-fat, high-sugar diet of biscuits, cookies and multiple-processed flours and cereals. The instant noodle industry alone accounts for over PHP 6B in household spending, while carbonated beverages and processed fruit juices hold a combined total of PHP 21.5B, cutting out a neat 87 percent market share of the non-alcoholic beverage industry. Instant beverages and snacks have taken such a strong hold on the modern Filipino diet that even economists like Florence Mojica of the Center for Food and Agri Business laud the financial returns that this booming industry yields the market. Talk about bad encouragement.
Processed food selection aside, it isn’t any bit more comforting to think about the contemporary equivalent of a distinctly home-cooked Filipino meal. Somehow, Filipinos have grown tired of the usual fast food value meals (the most popular of which include combinations of fried chicken with free flowing gravy, spaghetti with hotdogs and an intensely sweet sauce, colored to bright-red perfection-this is the spaghetti refitted to the Filipino palate, rice, and soda kicked up with obscene amounts of sugar) and found their own one-of-a-kind dishes as an alternative. Increasingly, popular ihaw-ihaw (sidewalk charcoal grill) restaurant menu items have found their way to schools, so with pulutan dishes to the likes of sisig (sizzling, crispy pig’s face-so good and so generously packed with cholesterol), crispy pata (fried pork leg) and bopis (a common street food that’s a mixture of pork and beef innards, including the liver, lungs or intestines). Sidewalks are fast crowding with little stalls that sell sticks of fishballs (it’s the secret marriage of pork fat and discarded fish parts that make these so tender and appetizing) and qwek-qwek (deep fried quail eggs on a skewer) dipped into communal pots of tasty sauces. Plus, how can anyone forget the indispensable chicharon (deep fried sheets of crisp pork skin)?
Excessive sugar intake provided by processed cookies, refined flours and artificially flavored beverages leads to diabetes which today afflicts as much as three million Filipinos. Its mortality rate increased by an overwhelming 92 percent over a 10-year period. Long-term complications often result to vascular system disorders and heart disease, currently listed as the leading causes of death among Filipinos. Heart disease is also triggered by a rich smorgasbord of everyday treats. Qwek-qwek (quail eggs) have the nutritional equivalent of chicken eggs but owing to their miniature size are eaten in unhealthy quantities to satisfy one’s appetite. Food from ihaw-ihaw end up smothered in burned, carcinogenic matter. Deep-fried carbohydrates are saturated with bad trans-fats, which have caused a stir in the packaged food industry in the US of late. High cooking temperatures also induce the formation of cancer-causing acrylamides such as in fries, potato chips and chicacorn (a popular local snack consisting of deep-fried unpopped corn kernels, tossed in salt, MSG and other spices). Soft drinks are linked to long-term conditions like osteoporosis, obesity and heart disease.
Does eating cheap necessarily translate to food that’s stripped of much nutritional value? Must hunger be satisfied with fatty, sugary treats? A lack of nutritional education and household incomes work in conjunction to ensure that Filipinos continue to subsist on a diet of instant noodles and cheap, unhealthy street food. It’s almost become a staple of modern culture, really. Even calamity relief drives dole out more and more instant noodles over rice. It’s not surprising that these people gain so much weight from empty calories.
Diets can have a considerable impact on the quality of life. For poor folks, this can mean a significant increase to their life expectations. Eliminating a culture of bad eating is not easy, especially in the face of gripping economic woes. This unhealthy eating trend is, in a huge way, a practical reactionary response to financial hardships. Sadly, until economic conditions in the country start to become rosier, we can expect people to continue to subsist on chips and instant noodles.