10 March 2013

The Salty Filipino Diet and the Hypertensive Cook

There was one news clip in an episode of TV Patrol last week that reminded me of something that I had not thought of for the longest time. But more about this later.

The news clip was about the World Health Organisation expressing alarm at the growing number of hypertensive people in the Philippines. What was alarming, the report said, was that the malaise has started to afflict even young people.

The problem, it was explained, has always been the Filipino preference for salty foods. This bit of fact, however, falls under the category tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know.

I mean, if a national survey was undertaken to determine what condiments are common to the Filipino kitchen, the result would probably yield the following in no particular order: jar of salt, patis or fish sauce, toyo or soy sauce and bagoong.


The problem with Filipinos is that we ingest three times the amount of salt that our bodies need because of our meal preferences. When the kidneys are unable to process the volume of salt ingested, the salt is allowed to slip into the bloodstream.
It’s never as though a survey is even necessary because these are standard to the average Filipino household.

Then, you can add the rich variety of dried stuff that we all also love, anything from the tuyô to the daeng to the tapa, all of which will require some amount of salt to treat.

Then there are the increasingly ubiquitous quick meals and junk foods that are being blamed for the increasing number of young people who are being afflicted with hypertension or high-blood pressure. Suffice it to say that hypertension used to be common mostly among older people.

The way I understand it – and those from the medical professions will please feel free to correct me – the kidneys are the organs that regulate the amount of salt in the body. If there is too much, we become thirsty; and the ingestion of fluids will help the body get rid of the salt by way of urination.

The problem with Filipinos is that we ingest three times the amount of salt that our bodies need because of our meal preferences. When the kidneys are unable to process the volume of salt ingested, the salt is allowed to slip into the bloodstream.

Salt in the bloodstream attracts fluids to it which is the reason for high blood pressure.

The WHO recommendation was, predictably, for the reduction in the amount of salt that we Filipinos ingest. Something easier said than done, of course; and if we are all being honest, most of our favourite foodstuffs are actually of the salty variety.

But enough of the WHO report. It was actually a side-comment by anchor Noli de Castro which caught my attention.

“Paano kung asin ang ulam?” he asked his fellow anchors.

I suspect that the other anchors thought that he was just fooling around. I certainly didn’t; and his face didn’t really look like he was joking.

De Castro was originally from Mindoro where he would have heard stories of impoverished families who probably did as he was saying; i.e. eat with salt as ulam. It was his comment that made me recall this story that used to be told to draw laughs by a cook who my Mom used to ask over from her hometown during fiestas.

The cook had become hypertensive and had gone to see the municipal doctor.

“You need to eat more ulam and less rice,” the municipal doctor advised him.

“Paano pô doktor kung ang ulam ko ay bagoong?” he asked the doctor.

But the doctor got mad at him, “Kayo naman ay pilosopo pa eh!”

Probably. Just being a tad cheeky, the old feller.

But his story, although he used to tell it to draw laughs while cooking, was not only a story of poverty but also of irony and the ability to make light of dire living circumstances.

Indeed, he would tell us somberly, there were days when he really had nothing to eat and had to make do with the bottle of bagoong which he kept in the kitchen as his ulam for the day.

The irony of his story was never lost on anyone. After all, he was a cook who others invited and sometimes paid to prepare lavish feasts.

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