My University of the Philippines Cebu High School class is having its grand reunion this year. Well, it should have happened last year, but with the Covid -19 pandemic still raging and all, we decided it was only prudent that we moved it to this year instead.

Of course, as part of the event, we have been exchanging faded photographs of those good old days, and guess what? Slim bodies all in a row, with nary a kilogram out of place. It won’t be the same now though, for your average high school class. It matters not whether it is one from an exclusive private school, or a public one. The look will be all the same.

Invariably, the bodies will be stouter all around. The last two generations, in particular, have seen a phenomenal increase in the size of the Filipino. In many ways, it has followed on the heels of trends elsewhere in the more developed countries, particularly in the USA. But invariably, the results have been identical.

When my batch was in high school, the food landscape was way, way different than what it is today. The now ubiquitous Harbour City chain of dim sum places was only available in a couple of locations throughout the city. There wasn’t a McDonalds to be seen. We had a few Orange Brutus outlets, a local copy of the American burger franchise, and even then they were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are today.

Most of my classmates, I imagine, ate a majority of their meals at home. Fast food forays were not seen as everyday events, but rather occasional treats that were meant for special occasions.

And we brought our lunches to school. Good old-fashioned home-cooked meals that our moms took the time to prepare, rather than just purchase off a supermarket shelf somewhere.

And during our breaks, we had no junk food place to rush to. All we had was ice water and a piece of “pig pie” (a pastry that I must confess I never understood the name of, as it contained no pork) to chow down, before we had to rush back to class again.

[Editor’s note: It is spelled “fig pie,” which a local bakery chain describes as “a bread with a flaky crust and enticingly sweet with a distinctive onion flavored filling.”]

Today, I imagine the scene to be something quite different.

Many school children still bring lunches to school, but not in the home-cooked variety we were all used to. Many packaged food items, particularly sugary beverages, are now staple features of their diet. And those schools in the urban areas have all types of fast-food outlets surrounding them, ready to serve the hungry school kid a high-calorie version of their food offerings.

A few months ago, I saw a program on a local television channel featuring a young school boy who was battling obesity. Still in grade school, he has the weight of an adult already, and also a host of medical issues normally associated with someone at a more advanced age. Metabolic syndrome, as these conditions are now categorically termed.

Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, just to name a few. And many of them are showing up way earlier than they used to just some years ago.

The changing food landscape may not be all there is to blame. Normally, complex problems like this one will have not just one singular cause. But certainly it seems to point to a disturbing trend that would be too much of a coincidence to ignore.

Most fast-food places serve what are commonly referred to as ultra-processed foods. A combination of large amounts of refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils and sugar, making the food tasty and irresistible, but also taking away many of the health benefits that we would normally associate with the act of putting something into our mouths.

Correlation does not equal causation, to be sure. Just because the rise in the presence of fast-food places has coincided with the increasing weight of the nation does not mean that they are the sole cause of the problem. But there is something here that needs further exploring, if we are to halt this tragic slide towards what is an impending health crisis for the country.

More next week.

(May I request our readers to pray for the eternal repose of the soul of my sister-in-law, Mary Therese Arguelles, who was laid to rest on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Bacolod City.)