Fast food nation

201204-w-best_fast_food-jollibee It didn’t take long before I was accosted as I patrolled the food court of Cebu City’s sprawling Ayala mall…a lone hungry foreign female in search of a nutritious lunch.

“We have fried pork, chicken, fish, lamb or goat,” declared the keen restaurant host trying to lure me further inside.

“Do you have anything with ONLY vegetables,” I asked – tired of hearing myself say this three times a day for at least week now.  I was getting rather exasperated at the extreme and slightly unexpected challenge the Philippines had confronted me with as a committed vegetarian of 25 years.

My search for a healthy vegetarian lunch was set against a live soundtrack of karaoke pop, performed in the mall foyer by pre-adolescent Filipina girls. No one else seemed bothered by the extremely loud noise.

I had recently learnt that this mall was one of the city’s key attractions, littered with American franchises and Filipino knock-offs of donut, pretzel and burger chains. It is said that on an average day, more than 85,000 people visit Ayala Centre.

Whilst food options are clearly limited for the rare breed of vegetarians that must wander through Filipino malls, it was also a challenge to find anything that resembled healthy food.

Of course shopping malls exist throughout Asia, mostly aimed at the emerging middle class and the wealthiest city dwellers; but Filipino malls appear to have a profoundly American flavour.

I’m not referring to the diet-obsessed subculture within the States; rather it is the super-sized ‘burger and fries’ lifestyle that has firmly found a home for itself thousands of miles away from its birthplace in the many shopping malls dotted throughout the Philippines.

Whilst amusing, an attempt to dodge fast food in the Philippines is hard work – which gives some indication as to how much of it Filpinos living in cities must be consuming as part of their daily diet.

A recent report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reveals that obesity for both children and adults is steadily rising in the Philippines. Today 1 in 4 adults are overweight – up 11% from 1980. That number has nearly doubled for children, jumping from 1 in 40 to 1 in 20 now being classified as overweight.

While the statistics show a steady increase in obesity levels, it is more what I observe that confirms this trend. I curiously step into an upmarket beauty parlour in the mall, a luxury only affordable to reasonably wealthy Filipina ladies. At least 10 women are lined up on purpose-built chairs that enable simultaneous manicures and pedicures to take place. The majority are visibly overweight, are gazing at tablet screens on their laps.

I visit a government office the next day and can’t help but observe how at noon on the dot – buckets of deep fried chicken are scattered across the table accompanied by oversized fizzy drinks.

I ask a volunteer who has been working in the office for the last one year if this is a typical lunch. “Unfortunately yes – that’s why I bring my lunch from home everyday,” she says.

She had recently visited the storm-battered city of Tacloban, a year after Typhoon Haiyan tore a path of destruction through the city, “It’s a bit of a joke that ‘Jollibee’, the Filipino equivalent of McDonalds was apparently one of the first buildings to be rebuilt following the disaster, ” she says.

My search for a healthy lunch the previous day had finally ended in a juice bar. They were promoting ‘brown sugar’ as a healthy alternative to ‘white sugar’ for calorie conscious customers – needless to say I ordered a simple cheese sandwich with a sugar-free juice.

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