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When Culture Gets in the Way of Healthy Eating

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

In the last year that I've been coaching people I've noticed how certain aspects of our Filipino culture can influence how we eat. While we're lucky that we have affordable access to high quality meat, seafood and produce, and that most Pinoy meals are pretty primal, we often run into situations and ways of thinking that may derail our efforts at eating well. These things are kind of wired into us as a people, so they do present a bit of a challenge:

1. We're afraid of going hungry.

In the Philippines, a typical day may have a number of meals: breakfast, the morning snack, lunch, afternoon merienda, dinner, and potentially a midnight snack. What's funny is that sometimes this isn't because we're actually hungry in between meals; sometimes it's just done out of habit. Or boredom. Or just because the food happens to be there.

In my group coaching sessions, whenever I ask people to "honor their hunger" and try to differentiate between "I want to eat" vs. "I'm really hungry" (described as the "FEED ME OR ELSE....!!!!" feeling), many of them surprise themselves when they find that they can actually skip their usual 10am snack and be just fine all the way until lunch or even past it.

Of course sometimes, being constantly hungry has to do with insulin resistance so dietary changes may be needed to help regulate insulin response and break free of sugar dependency.

As Pinoys we all love to eat, but our relationship with food has to change from constant neediness and obsession to one where we are in control, where we become more selective and really savor what we eat.

2. Dapat busog at every meal.

Language is always reflective of culture. In the Philippines, there are only two words to describe our state of satiation: gutom (hungry) and busog (full). There is no in-between. So when I ask people to eat "only until no longer hungry," it's a pretty difficult concept to grasp.

When you attend a conference or a party with a buffet meal you'll find people loading up plate after plate and eating like there's no tomorrow "para sulit yung buffet." How the word sulit (good deal) ever came to mean "overstuffed and likely to feel guilty and sick afterwards" is a mystery to me.

In contrast, the Japanese -- particularly the Okinawans who are known for their long life spans -- have a concept of hara hachi bu: to eat only until 80% full. A Japanese proverb even says: “eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor.”

This is a great rule to follow, instead of going from extreme hunger to extreme fullness and all the guilt it comes with. It also helps to eat slowly, so you can give yourself time to assess whether you are in fact "no longer hungry."

3. Kailangang makisama.

This is probably one of the most difficult to hurdle. Pinoys are the most hospitable people and almost every social situation involves food. Not a week goes by that you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a slice of cake, ice cream or a heaping plate of pancit (with rice, of course!). Saying no is considered a little rude, and there will likely be a bit of back-and-forth between your "thank you, I can't" and your host's "sige na, tama na yang diet na yan!"

What do you do?

Well...a couple of options: Depending on the situation, you can opt to just have some of that halo-halo, enjoy it, and then brace yourself for the gas and the mad rush to the bathroom. Or you can stand your ground, say politely that you would love some, but you need to decline for health reasons. Either way it's tough, but you'll get over it, and so will everyone else.

That's just how it is. But it helps to be aware of these "cultural blockers," to practice mindfulness when eating, sound judgement, and sensitivity in social situations.

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