The other day, I received a message from a good friend asking me if I could help his mom through her decade long rheumatoid arthritis. After replying to him and arranging how we could get her the care that she needed, I paused and reflected on how the state of healthcare in the Philippines has not changed in the past decade.

In 2015, I launched an advocacy called Bridging Lifestyles and Health that delivered 107 nutrition and wellness talks in the span of 10 months about the power of lifestyle change in reversing chronic disease. The lectures allowed me to learn what corporate, non-corporate, urban, rural, high, middle and low income lifestyles were like across Metro Manila. I learned a lot from those talks, like there are universal nutrition and lifestyle practices that are embedded in our society that keep us sick and prevent us from being able to maximize our health potentials! In this post, we’ll go over the standard Filipino nutrition and how it contributes to long-term disease.

We are eating low nutrient dense food

Low-income senior citizens with high daily blood sugar readings and well-to-do housewives living in exclusive villages have one thing in common: the nutrition choices they make. Everyone starts their day with breakfast that normally include coffee, rice and one form or another of canned/processed food such as SPAM, hotdogs, pork and beans or tocino topped with ketchup or soy sauce. Lunch and dinner once again consists of rice, meat, and MAYBE a piece of fruit. Throughout the day, Filipinos eat snacks in the form of breads, cakes, chips or other assortments of packaged and processed items. Collectively I call all the meals the RU diet - short for the ‘Rice and Ulam (viand) diet’.

When we break down this RU diet we can see that Filipinos don’t get enough nutrition. In medical school we were taught that nutrition was all about fuel divided accordingly into the macronutrients - the protein, fat and carbohydrates. After deeper study these past years, I’ve now come to understand that food is more than the sum of the proteins, fat and carbohydrates that we eat. Food has other things in them collectively called micronutrients – minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals - that are messengers telling the cells in your body what to do. Yes you heard right – food are actually a collection of chemical messengers that talk to your genetic code found inside cells, allowing them to respond to the environment.

In one study by the team of Bouwens et al., a healthy smoothie was given to participants and their genes were tested every hour after the drink was given. What his team found out was after six hours; 437 genes had changed expression compared to 297 gene changes in the people who were fed a non-healthy smoothie1.

The impact of this type of scientific evidence allows us to understand the importance of micronutrients and how the rice & ulam “RU” diet is completely lacking in these important components. If we were truly honest about it, the standard RU diet is only really a collection of carbohydrates, protein and fats wrapped in toxin containing food additives, preservatives and coloring. As you continue through the years with this nutrient depleted diet, your body starts diverting its stored nutrients to prioritize one body function over another. You can think of it like a company that has only limited finances and needs to manage its money by giving it to the departments that most need it. Some staff would be let go and some departments would not function properly i.e. some parts of the body are forgotten and don’t function properly.

Eventually your body responds and tells you something is wrong through seemingly unrelated changes. Some people get hungry sooner and develop cravings they’ve never had before. Others start getting fatigue, headaches and weird mood swings. Some get constipation, skin rashes or brain fog. Certain women develop menstrual symptoms not previously there before. Some children develop mood or learning issues.

So next time you feed yourself ask yourself “What kind of signal am I giving my body with this food?” We were meant to eat real, live unprocessed food and the more we veer away and choose processed items, the higher we shift our health toward long term disease.

Your partner in health,
Dr. E

References: Bouwens M, Bromhaar M, Jansen J, Müller M, Afman L. Postprandial dietary lipid–specific effects on human peripheral blood mononuclear cell gene expression profiles. Am J Clin Nutrition. 2010;91(1):208–217. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28586.