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Mannequins and Reflexions

Why Are Koreans Skinny?  Korean Women Weigh In.


Well here it is — the last installment of my series on Korean diets. I’m all packed up and ready to go back to the land of the lumberjacks and hopefully back to feeling normal around bodies! But I did promise one more article, so here it is.

At the beginning of this series, I asked some of my Korean co-workers to complete a short survey about their diets. I also asked some expats living here, who shared their thoughts as well. The survey asked participants what they ate, what Korean food is healthy, and what tips they could offer others trying to lose weight or eat better. I’ve written two articles where I shared the tips that I feel are most true and helpful. Now, I’d like to share more of the results, even ones I don’t agree with.

Today, we are faced with a barrage of conflicting information about what is healthy, what is good for dieting, etc. So of course, when completing surveys, people are going to have different ideas about what is healthy. Also, what I think about nutrition might be completely different from what you do, even being from the same culture or even family. So of course, the thoughts of my co-teachers are quite different from my own. That does not make them any less interesting, however, so I will still share them. Also, please do not criticize my questions as being rude or biased. I wrote the questions so that my co-teachers, who all have different levels of English, could easily understand and would give me more direct answers. For privacy, I have included only first names.

Question 1. Why is it that Koreans are so thin and healthy?

“Most Koreans think that a thin and skinny body is a symbol of health these days.” (Bomi, 29)

“Because most Korean enjoy kimchi and don’t like fast food.” (Kwon, 54)

“I believe the food we intake is low in unhealthy fat (mostly vegetables and grain based dishes)” (Daisy, 30)

“It’s because Korean food is healthy, which includes less fat and calories than Western food.” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“They are naturally thin. This is because of the DNA of the people- there are two types of Koreans – thin and wire like and and short and heavy.” (Sunae, 40).

“In my opinion, the older generation is thin and healthy because they eat mainly a Korean diet and they love outdoor activities such as golf and hiking. However, the younger generation is thin only because they care about their appearance and weight too much. So, they try all sorts of diet to stay thin.” (Keira, 31)

“I think Korean food is very balanced, and nutritious.  Especially, our cuisine and ingredients are very healthy.” (Chan Yong, 32) 

“There are also thin Westerners and not everybody who is thin is necessarily healthy as well… Part is genetics, part is the food and eating habits, part is the huge social pressure under which many Koreans live. I assume at least some of the Korean girls are so skinny for the same reason they are willing to do plastic surgery…” (Christine, 39)



Question 2. What habits in regards to food do Koreans have?

“Koreans try to eat less oily food.” (Bomi, 29)

“Almost all Koreans usually enjoy kimchi and other fermented side dishes in their daily diet” (Kwon, 54)

“Most people actually just eat square meals – I don’t really see them snack a lot (at least among adults).” (Daisy, 30)

“We drink water instead of soda. Traditionally, we do not have desserts like cakes or cookies – sweet desserts are imported from western countries.” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Koreans have healthy eating habits based on Korean traditional meals, which is low in carbohydrate and highly nutritious and they eat fruits as a desert, not cookies, sweets, etc.” (Pyo Eun, 32)

“Koreans generally eat regularly and enjoy vegetables without much sauce, seasonings, or oils.” (Chan Yong, 32)

Question 3. What are the healthiest Korean foods?

“Samgaetang, which is a kind of chicken soup with a lot of oriental medicine including ginseng. Most Koreans tend to eat this food for recovering their own health.” (Bomi, 29)

“Kimchi, soy-bean paste, and bibimbap (vegetable mixed-rice)” (Kwon, 54)

“Bibimbab, buckwheat noodle dishes, sweet potato noodles, beef bone soup, tofu dishes, etc.” (Daisy, 30)

“Bibimbap, Bulgogi, bean paste soup(doenjang soup)” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“My top 3 would be 미역국 (seaweed soup), 보쌈 (boiled pork), and 오이소박이 (cucumber kimchi).” (Keira, 31)

“I think brown rice and many kinds of vegetables. Many foreigners cook bibimbap with brown rice. It is [a] very healthy food.^^” (Chan Yong, 32)


Question 4. What are the least healthy Korean foods?

“Bbopgi is one of the least Korean foods. It is made of sugar and soda.” (Bomi, 29)

“Steamed white-rice and Korean-style soup (including much salt and many seasonings)” (Kwon, 54)

“I think spicy soup type dishes are the least healthiest – a lot of msg, sodium, etc. and definitely street food.” (Daisy, 30)

“Spicy food like hot fish broth” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“전 (Korean style pancake- kimchi jeon, seafood pajeon etc) only because it’s fried. Also any kind of street food.” (Keira, 31)

“I think Samgupsal. It is high-fat.” (Chan Yong, 32)

“I think all the fried foods must be pretty unhealthy – like the “dak kang jang”! – and all the plain, white rice too!  There are pretty much no nutrients in plain white rice, as far as I know.  And maybe I’m biased because it causes me so much physical pain, but I feel like eating all that “gochujang” can’t possibly be healthy.  I mean, it’s radioactive red, and it causes my face and throat to burn painfully, my nose to run, my eyes to water, and my stomach to hurt!  How can eating something that causes so much pain be healthy for you???” (Christine, 28)

Question 5. Many Western women who come to Korea gain weight. What are some tips you can give them to lose weight?

“I think eating healthy food is the most important factor of losing weight. For instance, eating vegetables and food with fewer calories helps you lose weight and keep your body in good condition.” (Bomi, 29)

“Don’t enjoy carbonated drinks like coke and try to avoid eating fast food when they eat out.” (Kwon, 54)

“….homemade food is probably the best way.” (Daisy, 30)

“First, try Korean food, starting from less spicy and more health-oriented ones. Drink water instead of diet coke.” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Any Western women who tried Korean food would notice that they would be full with a smaller amount of Korean food than they used to eat back home. I think cutting back on Western food and eating a proper amount of Korean food regularly would be helpful.” (Pyo Eun, 32)

“I want to tell them to eat regularly, not eat at night, and enjoy exercise (like Kayla^^)” (Chan Yong, 32)

Question 6. If you are trying to diet what do you do?

“I usually work out at gym for 1 or 2 hours every day and plan a diet.” (Bomi, 29)

“I make it a rule to eat a three-times small regular meals and to walk everyday even a few minutes and avoid fast food as much as possible” (Kwon, 54)

“Exercise, reduce junk food/bread/rice cake intake, pack my food.” (Daisy, 30)

“Keep my calories under control and do exercises.” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Before marrying, I almost always try to diet. I eat regularly (3 times a day), and exercise one hour over four times a week. If I want to eat cakes or pizza, I eat them once a week.” (Chan Yong, 32)

Question 7. What are some healthy Korean snacks? Secret Korean diet foods?

“Dried fruit and tofu cracker. I think sweet potato and tofu are the representative secret Korean diet foods.” (Bomi, 29)

“Garlic, soy-ban paste, and various fermented food. Rice pop-corn and sweat potato” (Kwon, 54)

“Rice cakes (not the dduk kind). Buckwheat noodles and sweet potato ;)” (Daisy, 30)

“Rice cake, bibimbap( a lot of vegetables), bean paste soup(doenjang soup:low calories)” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Korean fruits and fried rice! Secret 2. Eating rice with namul and kimchi makes you feel a lot healthier after a couple of days” (Pyo Eun, 32)

“soups. we have many soups that are medical related- if you’re sick soup, tired soup, hung over soup, need sex soup, uplift soup, got divorced soup, and angry soup..” (Sunae, 40).

Question 8. What are some secret Korean diet tricks?

“I think most Korean foods are the secret diet tricks.” (Bomi, 29)

“Kimchi, soy-bean paste soup, various side dishes including garlic, and vegetable (we call it “namool”)” (Kwon, 54)

“I personally think Koreans are very unhealthy when it comes to dieting because they don’t really do their research on their body/nutrition. They like to do 1 food dieting, etc.” (Daisy, 30)

“Drink water, No dessert, Korean food(Korean food is usually low in calories)” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Honestly, eating Korean traditional food is the answer. I’ve never worried about my weight before I stayed [in] Western countries.” (Pyo Eun, 32)

“I know that one food diet was once very popular here. Eating only one kind of fruit or veggie all day and every day. I think it’s crazy.” (Keira, 31)

“Eat the necessary nutritional contents. (very balanced)” (Chan Yong, 32)

Question 9. Are there any other tips or comments you can offer an overweight Western woman who wants to lose weight?

Eat regular meals including various vegetable. Avoid fast food and a carbonated drink.  Try to quit too much snacks.  Enjoy exercise(working)  every day.” (Kwon, 54)

“Eat less, Exercise more. It’s a key to losing weight. Do both at the same time.” (Hye-jeong, 34)

“Korean traditional food is healthy because it is not processed or it usually does not add any artificial ingredients. It takes time to make even one side dish but you hardly ever feel indigestive after a meal and you are full for a longer time. So if you think you’re not a big fan of Korean food, try to use healthy ingredients and think of nutrients. Especially, no more sugar-based cookies, beverages, deserts. Save them for an occasional guilty pleasure!”(Pyo Eun, 32)

”poor bread and fat diet is killing the western people who eat with their eyes and have forgotten the what is food and why we eat. “Taste” is the death of all westerners now- and the disease of junk food is now, coming to korea. the younger generation of Koreans are being distroyed by western junk food which now is everywhere. our kids are getting fat like never before. (Sunae,40)

Yes, stop using your tongue as your guide to eating- you’re forgetting “why” youre eating and each meal doesn’t have to “taste good” to be good.” (Sunae,40)

“If you decide to lose weight, never give up. At least three months you have to diet very hard. And it is more important to maintain your weight. Keep exercising regularly to use up the calories you eat a day.” (Chan Yong, 32)

“Honestly, I think just having a healthy lifestyle is the key.  I don’t think it’s just one simple thing.  For example, if you eat healthy, but you drink beer every night, you’ll probably gain a lot of weight.  Or if you exercise everyday but you eat garbage all the time, you won’t be healthy either.  So I think the three things that a Westerner here needs to regulate are her diet, her substance use, and her activeness.  It’s fine to eat a mix of Western and Korean foods – just pick foods that you like and try to incorporate healthy things into your diet in each meal.  And I think it’s fine to eat snacks and to “cheat” once in a while.  Being obsessive about food isn’t the answer either.  So, in order to make healthy eating a part of your lifestyle, you have to find healthy foods that you really like – fruits or meat that you enjoy – and then it won’t feel like you’re on a “diet.”  In addition, reduce your dependency on alcohol, especially on beer.  I love drinking and going out too, but it’s not necessary to drink until you throw up every night!  And find some activity that you really love and incorporate it into your routine – once you do it regularly, it becomes a normal part of your life.  People sometimes say that they only exercise when they have time.  I think that’s silly – you never really have time to exercise, there are always other things you could be doing!  You have to make time to exercise – it has to be a regular part of your schedule so that you can’t claim to be too busy to do it.  And if you enjoy what you’re doing, then it might not even seem like exercise anymore.  I think if a Western man or woman did all those things, obesity would definitely not be a problem!” (Christine, 28)