Sugar, rice, and potatoes: Should we boycott the sweet and starchy?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

Last month, a bill that included excise taxes on sugared beverages was debated in Congress. A couple of weeks later, Senator Cynthia Villar started hinting on banning unlimited rice in restaurants. At around the same time, a study pointed to a link between potatoes and a higher risk of death.

healthy potatoes  
Yep, it’s official: Carbohydrates, such as potatoes, rice, and sugar, are our newest enemy. The question is, should they be?


“Killer carbs”

While an active lifestyle and a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables still pretty much hold the key to health, an evolving body of evidence continues to show new trends, such as an alleged risk for problems with carbohydrate consumption. As a result, many diets now boast of being low-carb, in contrast to how diet gurus twenty years ago urged people to eat low-fat. Strictly speaking, they’ve been in vogue since the 19th century, but this time around, more specific types of carbohydrates are being discouraged.

Now, all eyes are on carbs, with more people making an effort to curb excessive consumption of everything sweet or starchy.

Because many of us are so convinced that carbs are killers, we are so eager to demonize them. Somewhere in the deluge of data, we seem to have lost our way.

While stuffing your face with a big bag of potato chips in one sitting may be too much, demonizing carbs the way we do now – to the point of taxing sugar in all beverages, banning unli-rice, and avoiding potatoes on our next trip to the supermarket – may be a misinterpretation of evidence.

Let’s start with the unli-rice bill that Villar allegedly proposed. After netizens realized it was anti-poor, they took to the internet to air their concerns.

My brother's gift to his girlfriend. #praktikal

A post shared by Stef dela Cruz (@stefdelacruzmd) on

Unlike Villar, my brother, an engineer and chef, knows the value of rice. In fact, he gave his girlfriend a sack of rice on Valentine’s day!


Carb controversy

The whole movement to ban unlimited rice in restaurants became so laughable that Villar eventually denied having any plans to propose the bill at all.

Although a bill that banned unlimited rice in food establishments was no laughing matter, people couldn’t help but poke fun at it.

While everyone was quick to notice that prohibiting people from consuming more rice would not have favored the poor, only a few agreed that taxing sugar was a disservice to the many undernourished Filipinos who relied on it for cheap calories.

Noted research expert Dr. Antonio Dans cringes at the idea of depriving poor fishermen convenient access to cheap calories while they cast their nets under the unforgiving sun. “[Can] you explain why [the Congress is] proposing higher taxes on calories (House Bill No. 292) in a country where 2 of 3 people suffer from insufficient caloric intake?” he asked on Facebook.

While an epidemic of unhealthy life choices – including eating too many carbs, apparently – is to blame for the rising number of overweight and obese Filipinos, it is just one end of the malnutrition spectrum. On the opposite point, we find people who can’t afford to eat three meals a day, people who rely on cheap carbohydrates for survival.

According to Dans, there are about 65 million Filipinos who will suffer even more if everything sweet and cheap is no longer within their reach.

A proposed two-tiered reform is being proposed instead of a mere sugar tax. “If the price on calories from sugar go up, price for an alternative source must go down – at the same time. Not later.”

All opinions aside, a recent meta-analysis reveals that when the government taxes your favorite cola, you’re probably not going to lose weight, anyway.

Then, there’s the whole “potatoes are evil” controversy.


Po-tay-to, po-tah-to

This hits much closer to home for me. While I don’t consume a lot of sweetened drinks and I don’t ever indulge in more than one cup of rice, I do love potatoes.

I boil and mash them with eggs, pickle relish, and mayonnaise; dice them and add them to corned beef; slice them real thin for a hearty omelet; and enjoy them best when they’re topped with cheese and bacon, then baked to perfection.

While we can pronounce the word potato in two ways and mean the same thing, we can’t interpret the study on French fries and also take it to mean the same thing as, “Potatoes are unhealthy.”

Uh, no. Eating potatoes may be linked to death because we eat it with an unhealthy serving of steak. Or maybe it’s because we often deep-fry them then douse them in salt, almost as if we want to add insult to injury.

Maybe it’s not the potato’s fault; maybe it’s just the company it keeps. Or maybe – just like a child that ends up murdering his entire class – it could have been good, if only it wasn’t abused.

You want healthy ways to enjoy a potato? Here’s an easy-to-follow Mediterranean-inspired recipe prepared by Chef Sau del Rosario and Diet Diva. If you need more, here are 32 more recipes that I found on the US Potatoes Facebook page.

Mediterranean Lemon Chicken & Potatoes

Mediterranean lemon chicken and potatoes

1 1/2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 lb. US yellow potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup reduced-fat Greek or olive oil vinaigrette
1/3 cup quartered Kalamata olives (optional)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon dry oregano
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 cup chopped tomato


  1. 1. Mix all ingredients except tomatoes in a large bowl.
  2. 2. Place equal amounts onto 4 large squares of heavy-duty foil.
  3. 3. Fold in top and sides of each to enclose filling, leaving room for air to circulate.
  4. 4. Grill over medium heat for about 25 to 30 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are soft.
  5. 5. Carefully open packets and sprinkle equal amounts of tomato over each.

*Packets may also be baked at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes instead of grilling.


Reduce amount of olives used to bring down sodium content.
Recommended serving size is 1.5x bigger than serving size in recipe.


Absence of absolutes

Carbs are not a natural enemy. I hate to pull the it’s-all-relative card here, but putting all types of carbohydrate sources in one sad wagon and shipping them off to hell just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

People who can’t afford to eat healthy need their calories, even if these come from allegedly unhealthy sources. How we speak from a place of privilege by dismissing everything sweet and starchy as evil, while so many of our people continue to starve.

How we speak from a platform of misinformation if we ignore how potatoes, rice, and even sugar give us energy.

No, carbs are not an absolute evil – far from it, even. They are not like cigarettes that offer no benefit to us health-wise.

Calories and carbohydrates deserve a little more respect than we give them. How we consume them in excess, how the government can’t afford to subsidize vegetables and fruits, how we always try to look for a single scapegoat in health – these are what’s getting us in a whole lot of trouble.

"This is using one particular food or nutrient as a reductive explanation for diseases and problems that are very complicated and have multiple causes. It's nutritionism."
Marion Nestle, nutrition and public health professor, New York University

Let’s not tax sugar until we’re sure the poor won’t go hungry. Let’s not ban unlimited rice in restaurants just yet. Let’s not demonize potatoes, either.

The carbohydrate controversy, especially in a third-world country like ours, is so much more nuanced that it deserves more than a blanket verdict. When not everyone can afford to be healthy, we cannot afford to be snobs.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!