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The Nutritious World of Filipino Food: How to Pair Your Veggies

Pinoy food isn't all just fatty/oily/sugary/salty! Here are a few tips to keep your plate balanced with everyday Filipino meals

As seen in Metro Style, July 27, 2023

How many times have you heard someone say “Filipino food is so unhealthy/bad for you/too fatty/oily/sugary/salty.” I definitely hear this a lot and it makes me a little sad! Sure, there are fatty, saucy, deep fried dishes, and sweet, sugary desserts, but those really exist in every culture! Those people are definitely forgetting the rich, traditional, regional cuisines that are packed with lean proteins, seafood, and of course local fruits and veggies.

I also often get asked about how to eat healthy when we don't have access to the foods we see online like salmon, fresh berries, and kale. Often these lists of what healthy foods are come from western cultures, with different styles, preferences, and agricultural systems. Certainly there is a wide array of local produce, native fish, and even different types of rice that we produce that are just as nutrient dense and make balanced eating work. Even as the cost of fresh food has increased, there are still always budget-friendly options too.

Food is fuel and health, but it is also culture and tradition, nostalgia, celebration, and more. I love that we have “kumain ka na ba?” (“have you eaten?”) and “kain na” (“let’s eat”) as a way to greet guests, which speaks to our values of sharing, caring, and sense of community. So even if you’re watching your health, you can definitely eat in a way that aligns with your culture, honors your family’s traditions, and uses foods that are actually accessible and enjoyable to us. 

Classic Pinoy Adobo | Photo by FOX on Pexels

Here are a few tips to keep your plate balanced with everyday Filipino meals:

1. Rice - Everyone loves to cut out rice when you need to lose some weight. The problem is that this usually doesn’t last because you’re deprived, only losing water weight, and can lead to cravings because you’re missing a whole food group. And also that there's nothing wrong with eating white rice. Every culture has its staple carb. Carbs are just the main source of energy for the body. Other Asian cultures including the Japanese, who have long lifespans in their “blue zones”, eat rice. Healthy eating doesn't mean you have to completely eliminate a food, it’s the portion that matters. In the case of rice, it should typically be about ¼ of your meal. You can also try brown, red, or black rice for a bigger boost of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants. 

Photo by Eiliv Aceron on Unsplash

2. Cooking at home means more control - Food prepared at home is often more nutritious because you have control over your ingredients. You can choose lean cuts of meat, healthier cooking methods, good quality oils, whole grains over refined, or lower sugar or salt alternatives. I get that cooking can take up a lot of time and takes skill building, but even simply cooked ingredients a few times a week or cooking just one part of your meal can make a difference. Fast foods and restaurant foods are made to taste good and make money, and not necessarily to nourish you. So Filipino food from a restaurant is probably very different from your home-cooked versions.

3. Add veggies to your meals - This seems simple but does a lot. It adds in nutrients that you miss if you don’t eat veggies, yes, even if you take supplements. And veggies have filling fiber which help you eat the right amount of food and energy, not to mention support heart health, blood sugar, gut health, mood, and more. Try these combinations of veggies and make half your plate vegetables:

Filipino breakfast + atchara or a tomato-cucumber salad - atchara is pickled and contains some probiotics which support our gut. Filipino breakfast is typically savory, and to me that means another chance to add in some vegetables.

Adobo + carrots, bell peppers, or green beans - Adobo is so easy, you throw it in a pot with sauce and leave it. Take the work out of the veggies part by just chopping and throwing those into the pot too.

Sinigang + kangkong, radish slices, okra, and eggplant - Sinigang is my favorite, and so easy to load up with local greens! Who needs kale when you have kangkong?

Kare kare + bok choy, string beans, and eggplant, banana heart - Another big favorite of mine and so easy to make veggie-heavy. Banana heart has tons of fiber, and I love the crunch of string beans in a thicker, heavy sauce.

Tinola + chayote squash, ginger, spinach or malunggay leaves - Another super simple dish to throw in a pot and boil. Load up on leaves, and serve over a bowl of rice for a warm, comforting meal. 

Ginisang monggo + spinach, ampalaya, malunggay leaves, and diced tomatoes - Monggo is a legume, and very high in fiber, iron, and magnesium, which many people don't get enough of. This humble dish packs a punch of minerals, and throw in some more leafy greens, onions and garlic for a prebiotic boost to nourish your good gut bacteria. 

Pancit + carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, and bean sprouts - Making pancit at home means you can easily load up on veggies as well. Adding crunch makes it much more satisfying and flavorful, and won’t leave you sleepy as if you had only noodles. 

Gising-gising - go heavy on the veggies - This is my dad’s favorite. Focus on the wing bean itself, and go lighter on the meat and coconut milk. This makes a great side dish to pair with other protein dishes. 

Pinakbet + ampalaya, eggplant, squash, okra, and string beans - Here’s another, saltier dish that you can manage better if you make your own. Ease up on the bagoong and let the veggie flavors come through the dish. 

Smoothies + malunggay, alugbati, kangkong, pechay - We usually think of spinach for a vegetable in smoothies, but these local green, leafy veggies work just as well! Just because something is not a “superfood,” which is just a marketing term, doesn’t mean it isn’t actually loaded with vitamins and minerals.


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