, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Koreans are skinny. Have you noticed? I mean, if you live in Korea, it’s pretty hard not to.  I know that people say you can’t stereotype. But, it’s actually the truth. Koreans are skinny – really, really, skinny. 

My Disclaimer

I know I’m asking for all the haters to start commenting about how obesity is rising in Korea and raise other objections, but I don’t care. When I look around, I see skinny people. Also, as a disclaimer, I realize this is an opinionated piece. But, I’ve lived in Korea for two years, in two different cities, and in two different work environments; I am entitled to write what I’ve experienced. Also, this is not a scientific study. I’m writing merely based on my experiences and observation.  I love Korea, so please understand that my criticism is not an attempt to stereotype or offend an entire country.  Every individual is different and there are image and health issues in every country.  I might not agree with Korea’s intense pressure to be thin, but I certainly commend Koreans on being so much healthier on average than people from the West.  I love Korea, and although there are some things I will criticize about Korea, the purpose of this series is to explore health and eating habits of Koreans to help improve the health of everyone. 

Supershrink Me

If you’re like me, you are from a Western country (I am from Canada). You are used to all shapes and sizes and probably feel pretty normal and confident in your body. Maybe, you are even in decent shape, and back home you are usually considered to be on the smaller side. Well, all that changes once you move to the ROK. No longer are you small. In fact, you are probably bigger (and when I say bigger, I mean “fatter” to a Korean) than all of your coworkers, the average person on the bus, and even the bathroom ajummas at your school. Even if you are okay with this, you will find that many outspoken Koreans are not. “You are fat!” They will tell you. “You are not small!” “You need to lose weight.”

A picture from when I first arrived in Korea taken in the fall of 2011. I was told I was fat here.

A picture from when I first arrived in Korea taken in the fall of 2011. I was told I was fat here.

Yes, these are all comments I’ve had directed at me. And, for your reference, I am actually considered small back home. Even if you do lose weight, Koreans will still make you feel bad about your previous size. Last year, when I lost some weight, I had some Koreans say to me “oh you look so much better now. You were SOOOO fat before. How many kilos did you weigh?” And then they would continue to remind me about how fat I had been as frequently as they could  which was not fat and only a difference of 3 kilos. Anyways, my rant is over.  When it comes to your weight in Korea, my points are:

  1. You are never skinny enough for a Korean.
  2. If you do lose weight, they will make you feel bad about how fat you were before.
  3. If you gain weight, you are fat again.
  4. Never believe a Korean when they say you are fat.

This can be a struggle for most people, and whether or not you agree with Korean body ideals, you will still be subjected to the opinion of all the people around you. Or so I have experienced.

Taken in August 2012, after I'd lost 3 kilos. Here I was told I looked good but that I had been sooooo fat before.  (Side note- actually this was not a healthy weight for me at all. I was underweight in this picture and was having health problems because of it).

Taken in August 2012, after I’d lost 3 kilos. Here I was told I looked good but that I had been sooooo fat before. (Side note- actually this was not a healthy weight for me at all. I was underweight in this picture and was having health problems because of it).

Health Tips from Korean Eating Habits

Despite some negative experiences, I thought it would be fun to ask my coworkers some questions about diet. How is it that Koreans are so skinny? What do they actually eat on a regular basis? And, if I wanted to eat like a Korean or pick up some of their skinny tricks and habits, what should I do?  I might not agree with their standards of beauty, but there are obviously things they are doing correctly that I can learn from.

So, I made a simple questionnaire and sent it to a handful of my Korean coworkers. I also posted it on some Facebook groups where some other expats completed it providing their opinions.

The results were really interesting to me. Many of the tips I didn’t agree with – I found that all my coworkers reported extremely low caloric intakes that are not healthy at all. How often they really eat that little I can’t say.  It’s one thing to write down that you only eat this amount, and it’s another to actually do it. However, I can assume that their answers were pretty close to what their normal caloric intake is on a regular day, especially since I can observe my coworkers at work.

Now, I know I’ll have some people say,

“but Koreans have REALLY high metabolisms! I see them eating junk food all day and they don’t get fat! I took a girl on a date and she ate so much rice and so much samgyeopsal AND we had ice cream after dinner!”

Now, I’m sure this is true in some respects – perhaps genetically Koreans are at an advantage. Perhaps they do have “skinny genes”. And yes, I’m sure that they can eat huge amounts of BBQ for dinner. But, I also don’t think that’s a regular everyday occurrence for them. I also think that when they eat larger meals, they tend to under eat the next day.

Regardless, Koreans do have some tips that we can use in our own quests for healthier lifestyles. 


1. Be a social eater. You will notice that in Korea many of the restaurants you go to are meant for group meals. Actually, at a lot of the BBQ places, you will not be allowed to eat there alone! But, social eating can be one way of helping you watch what you eat. You might think twice about how much you eat when you are surrounded by other people. Also, I think that by eating with their families for so many years, Koreans are accustomed to eating their vegetables. I know more than one guy back home who orders his steak and potatoes and leaves the “rabbit food” where it belongs – right there on the plate! Which is so wrong! In Korea, vegetables are highly prized and are featured accompaniments with each meal- as they should be!  I’m sure that by eating so many meals with their moms telling them to eat their veggies has caused the habit to become ingrained. But wait, your mom told you to eat your veggies too and she isn’t Korean? Okay – point made. I don’t know why Koreans eat their veggies with no problem!  However, I do believe that by sharing our meals with others, we can adopt healthier habits and also ensure that we are dedicating some time to the important social relationships in our lives.

2. When you want dessert, split it. In Korea, if you go to Starbucks and order a piece of chocolate cake, they give it to you with multiple forks without you even asking. Um hello – did I really want to share it with my friend? Well, no, not really. But in Korea, they just assume you aren’t going to eat that whole thing on your own – and isn’t that a good idea?

3. Actually split everything. This goes along with rule number 1.

4. Enjoy real food. Have you noticed how little in the way of diet foods are available in Korea? Diet pop? Diet cookies? Diet yogurt? Sure, they have some, but not many. I’ve noticed with Koreans that they don’t really eat “diet foods”, which I think is a healthy habit. Back home, in Canada, there is an overwhelming amount of “diet food,” most of which is completely processed, nutrient void, expensive, unhealthy, and bad tasting. And, people who tend to eat them often don’t enjoy them as much as they would the real deal. I know people who eat five 100 calorie snack packs of Oreo Crisps and still don’t feel like they ate one real Oreo. (And no, I was not the person who ate the five packs.  If it was Skinny Cow Ice Cream sandwiches on the other hand, then you might have caught me J) The bottom line is to think like a Korean. Enjoy the real deal, in moderation, which brings me to the next point – moderation in the form of portion size.

5. Portion size. Have you noticed how everything is in baby portions here? A can of coke is not the size it should be! What is it – 250 ml? I’m used to 355ml. What a rip off! But then, who is really being ripped off – the country with an obesity epidemic, or the country where you have to buy two cans if you want more? Portion sizes in Korea are much smaller! I don’t tend to eat out very often, but generally, if I do, I’m happy with the portion I get. Bibimbop? Kimbap? Bulgogi? Whatever dish you order, you can usually be safe to assume you aren’t going to feel like a whale after eating it, or feel guilty that you didn’t only eat half your entrée, which is typical advice for eating out in Canada where they usually advise to save half your entrée to take home. But really, if I wanted a meal for tomorrow, then I could order a meal tomorrow.  The bottom line is, when it comes to portion control,  Korea wins. Smaller portion size means you really need to evaluate your appetite before ordering more food. Second, when you do decide to opt for a real dessert, like Baskin Robbins ice cream, you get a little baby 1/2-cup portion. It’s not enough to make you fat, but definitely enough to make you satisfied.

6. Eat food for the health of it. Never before have I seen people regularly eat strange foods just because they are healthy!  Ok, so I’ve seen a couple people drink those wheatgrass shots from Booster Juice (which taste like mulched up lawnmower grass-blech!) But here, a large amount of people regularly consume things that seem strange:

  • Onion Juice – EWWWW!!! I could never drink this, but I see my co-teachers downing these little tetra packs daily! They say it’s good for their skin.
  • Fresh Tomato Juice – Koreans drink smoothies made from fresh tomatoes, sometimes with the addition of other fruit. When I see a smoothie – I think like banana strawberry – yum! NOT tomato!!!
  • Dried Anchovies and gochujang for beer snacks. Anchovies, full of DHA, are the healthy part.  Gochujang and beer – not so much.
  • Fermented Fish Intestines and Other Sea CreaturesOk, so I don’t see my co-teachers eating these, but I do see them at the supermarkets and always there are free samples. I made the mistake one day of trying something that did not taste good at all and have never ventured back to that corner again!

There are seriously so many foods here that are based on the health benefits first, and taste second. I know that some people will think kimchi on this, but kimchi is only the start, and the taste can be quite good depending on the batch. Some of these foods do not taste good at all, yet they are regularly eaten because of their benefits. And to think that back home some people are proud of themselves for “choking down that bowl of oatmeal” – Get real! Korea wins when it comes to eating food for health benefits

These are just a few tips I think westerners can learn from Koreans regarding better eating habits.  Stay tuned for my next article.  I’ll share what my co-teachers revealed in their daily diets, their “secret Korean diet tricks and tips,” and more of my thoughts on the Korean diet and what we can learn from their habits to improve our own health.

What have you learned about healthy eating habits while in Korea?

What is the strangest healthy food you’ve seen being consumed here?

I’d love to hear your comments!

A picture of me from now- July 2013. I am fat again by Korean terms. But I don't really care- I am way healthier now.

A picture of me from now- July 2013. I am fat again by Korean terms. But I don’t really care- I am way healthier now.

Kayla McColl is the writer of the blog Kabochas and Coconut ButterFitness, food and health are personal passions of hers. She is a competitive fitness competitor and has competed in multiple Bikini Bodybuilding competitions. To learn more about Kayla, click here.