Year for the Planet Week 3: The Year I Take Down Sugar from My Diet

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

This week, I wanted to take on the next meal after breakfast—the post-workout meal.

My daily schedule, barring art residencies, exhibitions, or speaking gigs, is usually:

– Wake up
– Eat
– Check email
– Do taekwondo
– Eat
– Take a shower
– Write, do language drills online (This year I’m learning German. Hallo!)
– Take a nap
– Eat
– Write, art, etc.
– Eat
– Work work work until I sleep

I believe creativity rests on a routine, so this is what has worked for me. (And it might not necessarily work for you, and that’s okay.) While structure has kept me relatively healthy (I don’t smoke or drink or do recreational drugs), what I actually ate, as I realized earlier, did not. I sometimes have what I call the Sugar Rapture when I have this irresistible urge to eat an entire box of cookies and still want more. After working out, I turn into a Fridge Forager, where I nibble on whatever sugary treat is in sight.

Thankfully, sugar is now being touted as the new devil in the food industry. Hurray! If MSG is something that is hard to avoid in my Chinese heritage, sugar is definitely the one in my Philippine side. The Philippines has a long and diverse history of colonialism, and it’s interesting to see how different flavors got into its cuisine. In the case of too much sugar, I would attribute most of it to the Americans, who brought in canned goods and other packaged foods, which may explain the abundance of Spam and corned beef in many a Philippine cupboard, as well as the love for packaged, processed food.

The Filipino palate is very sweet. Sugar is everywhere. It’s in the cured meats, the white breads, the brain-numbingly sweet desserts. Even the spaghetti is sweet. Surely it contributes to Filipinos being warm and expressive, but I think I might die from so much sugar.

When you grow up in this cuisine, you’re conditioned to feel that nothing is amiss. When I moved to the US, the sugar content in many of the dishes were comparable, if not exceeded, that of the Asian dishes I was accustomed to. The sweetness hit me hard only after one of my longer art residencies. I was in South Korea for seven months, and it was a vastly different cuisine where people are generally so averse to things being overly saccharine that their cakes had real fruit on them. I came back to the Philippines for a hiatus and started getting migraines after eating the food. It’s not that you can’t get fresh produce here; it’s the mode of preparation in most commercial places that makes what could be a healthy diet turn into something that can kill you.

Even buying a smoothie can be a problem. The fruits in tropical Philippines are some of my favorites in the world. I doubt you can get mangoes like these anywhere else. Growing up, we went to our house in the countryside which had a small mango farm, and I could never forget the fragrant scent that smelled yellow and green. But in smoothie bars that advertise a “fresh and healthy” lifestyle, it can be quite a shock to see how much syrup they would put into an otherwise healthy snack.

When I asked the lady at my local smoothie place why she would add so much sugar, she responded, dumbstruck, “Well, how else would that taste like anything?”. Perhaps we are so used to sweets that we are oblivious to the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit. Sugar seemed like a culinary tag of some sort—like the excess of hairspray you would add to a perfectly okay hairstyle. Unnecessary, yet with detrimental side effects.

I’m tired of always appending, “No sugar, please” to all of my orders. So like my breakfast, and what looks like everything else for this year-long challenge, I decided to make my own. For this week, each time I came back from taekwondo, this is the smoothie I make:

Banana Peanut Butter Turmeric Smoothie

1 cup soy milk
1 banana
1 teaspoon peanut butter
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup ice

I use mostly bananas in my smoothies because they’re the easiest to get in tropical Manila, and I already bought the rest of the ingredients in bulk earlier this year. But your blender knows no boundaries and discriminates against no fruit (or vegetable), so I’d recommend blending away! When in doubt, vanilla extract works wonders.

Why is reducing sugar in my diet beneficial to the planet? Simply put, I don’t crash afterwards. Now, I have no desire to nibble on snacks, which are usually processed and individually wrapped in brightly colored plastic that may sometimes say strange things like “Made with Real Milk and Eggs” as though to assure me that it’s edible. The more stable my blood sugar levels are, the less crap I feel like buying and the less plastic waste I end up making.

I’d give this meal a 4.5 out of 5 stars. Everything is healthy and has a purpose in the meal, it helps my body recover after training, it takes less than 5 minutes to make, it’s scalable and modifiable depending on what ingredients I have available, I don’t get headaches, I feel full for a couple of hours, and I don’t use plastic cups or straws. Most importantly, it’s something I look forward to making every day, and while it’s “healthy”, it doesn’t taste like what I imagine health food was going to be. It’s actually really delicious and tastes a bit like ice cream.

Onwards and upwards! See you next week!

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