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'Since most Filipinos are immigrants, when they come here they change their diets," says Ofelia Dirige, a nutritionist with a doctorate in public health. "They used to eat fish, vegetables, and fruit when they were in the Philippines; meat was expensive. When they come here, because the meat is so cheap and abundant, they start eating more meat. If you go to Filipino restaurants, most of the meat is fried and fatty." Dirige is cofounder of Kalusugan Community Services, an organization designed to promote health in San Diego's Filipino-American community. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, approximately 1,850,000 Filipinos immigrated to the United States, making them the fastest-growing Asian-American group.

On Saturday, August 4, Kalusugan Community Services will host "The Taste of Healthy Filipino Cuisine Extravaganza" to introduce its campaign for healthy eating. "Kalusugan" means "good health" in Tagalog.

"The purpose of the campaign is to reduce and prevent obesity among Filipino-Americans by working with the environment, which means working with Filipino-American restaurants and grocery stores," Dirige explains. "One problem with Filipino restaurants here is they give you too much [food], especially rice. For example, fast-food places like Conching's, Karihan, and Maharlika -- you go in there and just point to the foods that you want and they give you two scoops of rice to go with the meat. One serving of rice is only half a cup; two scoops of rice is the equivalent of four slices of bread."

Popular Filipino-American food -- lumpia (meat-filled, deep-fried spring rolls), chicharon bulaklak (deep-fried pork entrails), and chicken chicharon (deep-fried chicken skin) -- is unhealthy. "Lechon is a roast pork -- when you roast a pork, you include the fat with it, especially the skin. People like it because it's very crunchy," says Dirige. "We call it 'highway to heaven,' because when you eat it you have heart disease because of the fat." Another favorite is pork knuckles, one of the fattiest parts of the pig. "Fatty kinds of meats are cheaper than ones that are really lean," says Dirige. She adds, "[Most] Filipino restaurants don't serve any kind of salad."

Dirige is working with Filipino restaurants to make traditional dishes more nutritious. Villa Manila, a Filipino restaurant in National City, has modified its recipe for pancit noodles by using less fat when sauteeing the dish and offering chicken breast instead of pork. It also offers a fresh, unfried version of lumpia.

Unhealthy items, still in high demand, will remain on the menu. "We don't want restaurants to lose their business when we modify. It's a compromise. For people who want to eat healthy, there's some options for them." One smarter choice might be sinigang, a soup dish that includes fish and vegetables. Many restaurants are offering brown rice as a substitute for the starchier white.

"Usually the Asian population is kind of behind in terms of information relating to health," says Dirige, who attributes the lag to language and cultural barriers. According to a survey she conducted from 2000 to 2003 involving 458 Filipino-Americans who allowed their measurements and weights to be taken, "About 36 to 40 percent of Filipinos are overweight in San Diego and 13 percent are obese. Only 16 percent ate 5 servings of vegetables and fruit per day." Dirige warns that, though diabetes is the eighth leading cause of death in America, it is fourth for Asian Americans.

Obesity is one of the major risk factors for developing type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes. As with heart failure, this risk is increased when a person carries excessive fat in the abdomen, a condition known as android obesity. "The apple shape, when people bulge in the stomach, is a higher risk than the pear shape, or more bulge in the hips. The one that is deadly is the fat in your belly, that's the active fat," explains Dirige. Most Filipino women tend to be apple shaped.

At the event, local chefs will conduct demonstrations of "healthy cooking with flavors of Philippine cuisine." Larry Banares, executive chef at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines and host of a biweekly cooking segment on Channel 10 News, will prepare an avocado mango salad and pancit molo, or noodles stuffed with lean ground pork, diced shrimp, vegetables, and seasoning. The noodles (won ton wrappers) are boiled in chicken broth. Joseph Orate, department chair for the Grossmont College Culinary Arts Program, will cook Filipino-style chicken and vegetable chop suey and sinigang-style poached salmon. -- Barbarella

"The Taste of Healthy Filipino Cuisine" Saturday, August 4 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Holiday Inn 700 National City Boulevard National City Cost: General admission, $5 Info: 619-477-3392 or www.webkalusugan.org

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