How to Eat Out, Eat Healthy, and Stay Trim in Korea

eat me-1Kayla McColl, a fitness model and teacher in South Korea, continues her series on how to stay fit in Korea. In the first part of her health series, she shared some of her negative “fat” experiences in Korea along with some healthy social eating habits she learned while living in Korea. Click here if you missed part 1. This week, she shares her advice on how to eat healthy while eating out in Korea.

Article by Kayla McColl of Kabochas and Coconut Butter

So you read the advice about eating socially I suggested last week. Now what are your smartest choices for when you eat out?

Read on for my list of tips and tricks when it comes to making healthy decisions around Korean dishes.

1. BBQ

This is a great option because almost everyone is happy to go to a bbq place. Plus you can choose a meat variety that is leaner. Obviously sangyeopsal is not a good choice if you are trying to watch your calories. However, many of the beef dishes are very lean, and because you can see the raw meat before it’s cooked- you can judge how much fat is on the meat. If you are really picky- you can even chop off some of the excess fat (and maybe put it on the other side of the bbq- so your companion, who has no concerns at all about their size, eats it).

  • Choose lean cuts of meat.
  • Load up on the fresh veggies (lettuce and other raw greens).
  • Add extra veggies to the grill (many restaurants give you lots of cabbage, onions, garlic and mushrooms- all low calorie, healthy choices).
  • Beware the sauces (most are high in sugar, some are pure sesame oil. While delicious, your meal will still taste awesome without it).
  • Have a small portion of rice (carbs are not the devil, so don’t be afraid of them, but you should be mindful of your portion size. If you want to read more about the health of carbs, check this article out).
Stick to your lean cuts of meat for Korean BBQ. (photo credit: Dustin Cole at
Trimming the fat can also help you enjoy a healthier eating experience. (Photo credit: Dustin Cole at

2. Bibimbap

Perhaps one of Korea’s most famous dishes, bibimbap is really a smart choice. Portion controlled, lots of vegetables, and will suit vegetarians as well. My favourite is the dolsot bibimbap- where the bottom of the rice gets all crispy from the hot stone pot.

  • Lots of vegetables (usually they are lightly sautéed with some sesame oil. If you are unlucky you might get heavily fried ones covered in oil :().
  • Generally made with 1 cup of rice, which is a sane portion. (1 cup of rice has about 200 calories.)
  • Some chains allow you to choose the variety of rice if you don’t like white rice. (There have been a lot of debates in the health food sphere recently about the healthfulness of white rice vs brown rice. Contrary to what I used to believe, these have actually put white rice in a very positive light. You can do your own research and make your own opinion, but bottom line, a billion Asian people eat white rice every day, which is sufficient enough evidence for me.To check out a couple pubmed articles on this, click here and here.)
  • The protein content of this dish, however is fairly low- one measly egg has about 6 grams of protein. (You can request 2 eggs, but I find that brings the fat content up too much, as you already have sesame oil used in the dish. You can also request beef bibimbop, but again this meat portion is usually quite small.)
  • Easy to find, easy to pronounce (this is a big one!!) and you know what to expect. (Generally no surprises, like squid tentacles hiding in the rice.)
Bibimbap.  (Photo credit: Ken Lee at
Bibimbap. (Photo credit: Ken Lee at

3. Various soups and stews.

  • Many Korean soup and stew dishes are very healthful. Think bone broth soups, lots of vegetables, lean cut of meat, and many are simmered with herbs, roots, etc.
  • Samgaetang is a very popular example that fits that type of description: a whole chicken, stuffed with rice, ginseng, jujube and other herbs. It is lacking in the vegetable department though.Korean_soup-Samgyetang-09
  • Seollangtang is another good example. This is a bone broth soup made from slow simmered ox bones. I tried to make this once and failed. (It takes days. Maangchi has a good recipe if you ever feel the urge to try.)
  • If you are avoiding salt, some of the soups will not be a good choice for you- bean paste stew (daenjang chigae) and kimchi jiggae are both very salty. I for one love salt, but sometimes I even find these a bit too much. And, if you were my dad, who has to watch his salt intake, I would suggest something else for you.

4. Shabu-shabu.

Shabu Shabu. (Photo credit: Ken Lee at http://seoulstateofmind)
  • So this technically isn’t a Korean traditional dish, however it is pretty Koreanized. It’s basically a big bowl of boiling broth, with raw veggies thrown in plus raw meat, and is cooked in front of you.
  • Shabu-shabu is a great choice because, like bbq, you can choose your meat type (which is usually leaner than the meat used for bbq), plus you get wayyyy more vegetables. Actually, some shabu-shabu places will allow you to get unlimited amounts of raw veggies, which you can keep adding to your broth. So this is also a good choice if you are frugal and don’t want to buy more meat- you can fill up on veggies!
  • The same goes for noodles- some restaurants allow you to choose whether or not you want to add noodles to your dish. As I mentioned above, carbs are not the devil, so its okay to eat some noodles, just mind your portion.
  • One of the great things about this meal is that you don’t need to use sauces or syrups to make the food taste good, because of the broth.
  • A negative point could be the broth. If the broth is just a MSG powder and water mix, that kinda sucks, but you can’t always do anything about that.

You can follow these guidelines for most dishes in Korea. Opt for dishes that are plentiful on veggies, don’t have heavy sauces, aren’t deep fried or cooked in a lot of oil, have reasonable portions of rice or noodles etc and have leaner cuts of meat.

Other tips to keep in mind:

1. Muk is your friend, Duk is not. Muk is the clear jelly, it comes in 3 varieties, brown acorn jelly, and two clearer ones. The jelly is served in dishes like Dotorimuk. It is made

Dotorimuk, Korean acorn jelly
Dotorimuk, Korean acorn jelly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

from ground acorns mixed with water. It has about 35 calories in 100 grams. Duk on the other hand, while deliciously chewy, is a calorie bomb. Made from rice flour, it weighs in at about 235 calories per 100 grams. So while a few pieces of duk isn’t going to hurt you, they add up pretty quick.

2. Skip the sugary side dishes (banchan). Many Korean dishes come with a plethora of delicious sides. While most of these are excellent vegetable choices- you should be careful with some. I’ve noticed that a lot of the bitter vegetables are coated in corn syrup to make them more palatable. For me, the health benefits of that vegetable are being outweighed by the amount of sugar in the syrup, so I pass on those. Choose banchan that are lightly dressed, or have sauces on the side.

Banchan Heaven. (Photo credit: Dustin Cole at

3. Stay away from streetfood! Most streetfood is not a good choice when you are trying to more mindful of your eating habits. Deepfried foods, dukbogi, mystery meat sausage items… the healthiest option I’ve seen is the grilled squid- which though I love, is not something everyone likes to eat. In some places, I’ve seen cut up pineapple, but not regularly.

4. Alcohol. I don’t think I really need to give too much here. Calories in alcohol add up quickly. Sure, soju is a lighter choice than beer but it doesn’t take long to consume a couple hundred calories without noticing. I’m not saying don’t drink ever- but maybe if you are going to drink, skip dessert.

Additional tips I’ve picked up from Koreans:

  • Don’t snack between meals. Now this doesn’t go for everyone- and that isn’t the point of this article- this is merely my observations of habits Koreans have around meals. But what I’ve noticed is that Koreans tend to stick to three square meals a day, and aren’t grazing mindlessly in between. All those little snacks can add up. I used to believe that you had to eat small frequent meals throughout the day, in order to keep “your metabolism humming”. This has been proven to be a myth, mostly propagated by the fitness industry. Instead, what matters at the end of the day is the total amount of calories you have consumed. For further reading, click here.
  • Eat spicy food. As you have probably noticed, Koreans include spicy food with their meals. There are some claims that spicy foods like capsaicin can raise metabolism- but there is such a small amount of this mineral in spicy foods that I find that hard to believe. However, spicy food does have a hunger blunting effect, plus it has the ability to intensify and cause you to no longer want to eat.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Water is everywhere here- have you noticed? Walk into most businesses, schools, work environments, and you will find a hot and cold water cooler. Often, you can also have free tea (bags) and coffee (instant packets). Now the tea is a good choice- the coffee however has sugar and cream added to it. I think the packets have a total of about 60 calories- for the regular Taster’s Choice ones, so that isn’t too bad. It still has a lot less than a Frappuccino! We have plain instant coffee in my office and generally that is what I see my coworkers drinking. Also, I rarely see anyone drinking sodas, juice, etc, all usually calorie dense and high in sugar. Your best bet, when watching your calories, is to choose plain water, plain tea and plain coffee, all of which are zero calorie.

In the next post, I will be revealing the typical meals of my co-workers, as well as their tips and advice when it comes to losing weight or choosing to eat in a more health focused way.

Do you have any tips for eating out in Korea?

What are your favourite healthy meals?


To learn more about me, come check out my blog, Kabochas and Coconut Butter
To learn more about me, come check out my blog, Kabochas and Coconut Butter

Special thanks to Dustin Cole for the use of his photography. Please visit Dustincolephotography and check out the best new food blog in Seoul,

Special Thanks to Ken Lee, an awesome photographer and food enthusiast, for his picture contributions. Follow his awesome blog at


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Elise says:

    Most Koreans tend to fall for sweet beverages though. They get a lot of slushies, frappuccinos, lattes, etc.


  2. I wonder about the brown rice studies saying that it’s easier to absorb the nutrients in white rice – do they soak the brown rice beforehand? That helps to release a bunch of the nutrients, making them more bioavailable. Did they eat kimchi at the same time? The probiotics would help break down the nutrients and aid in absorption as well.

    On a side note – whenever I eat rice without enough raw veggies (fibre) on the side, I always get a blood sugar spike since there’s nothing to slow down the absorption of the simple sugars in the grain. Each grain of brown rice, on the other hand, is surrounded by naturally-occurring fibre.

    Thanks for your tips – my vote is definitely in for Shabu Shabu!!! I wrote a similar post a while back too 🙂


    1. KaylaMcColl says:

      Those are interesting points you raise. Quite possibly that is the reason why eating white rice with traditional Korean meals- like bibimbop which comes with lots of veggies, is a good choice- because the fiber in the veggies causes a blunting of the insulin spike. And I’m assuming that you have a pretty good understanding of this, so perhaps these are concerns you need to address for personal dietary reasons. For myself, I don’t have any need to measure my insulin spikes, so this wouldn’t be relevant to me. However I’m sure other people have these same concerns, so thank you for your insight :).


      1. Yes, bibimbap with lots of raw veg seems to go down pretty well! Koreans have got the food pairing down pat.


  3. grace kwon says:

    Samgaetang is the worst food for you. It is over 1000 calories. Also, a lot of the veggies in bibimbab are actually high in calories. 3 namul (the 3 you usually get in bibimbab) are close to 200 calories. You should checkout the stats on these foods. They are actually hidden calories. Korean food is honestly not that healthy, it has a lot of salt, sugar, sesame oil and calories. You need to be careful at restaurants.


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