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).

Why Are Koreans Skinny? : Korean Women Weigh In

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)



24 thoughts on “Why Are Koreans Skinny? : Korean Women Weigh In

  1. I preface this by stating that my diet is mostly Korean, as I live in Korea. While I agree that traditional Korean food is healthy, I dislike the ‘magic bullet’ effect associated with it, as well as the western food is bad, and Korean food is good dichotomy. I think that traditional diets anywhere in the world are better for you than modern diets. What we like to call western food is nothing like traditional western cuisine. It’s either fast food, or bland family restaurant variations on traditional dishes. I never saw my French-Candian grandmother and grandfather chowing down on bleached flour pasta or fatty hamburgers every day, nor did they guzzle down Cola with their meals. If Korean ate mostly deok, galbi, samgeupsal, street-food, or the ready-made meals from the likes of Gimbab Nara everyday, there would be plenty of fatties here too.

    There are some awesome tips here, and I love the idea of promoting a healthy lifestyle. I just wanted to emphasize that not only one country has the secret to a healthy lifestyle.


  2. The comment about “stop using your tongue” that food doesn’t have to taste good is VERY disturbing to me… It is possible to enjoy delicious, nutritious food. I personally think some Korean foods (like the bucket loads of white rice they’re eating, and street foods – their own food, not a western disease) are very unhealthy. The food they serve at my school cafeteria are deep fried A LOT, served with rice, and processed meat like sausages. What I basically do to stay slim diet wise here, is cook everything from scratch and use very little olive oil. Biggest tip yet in Korea – avoid soju like pest, it clocks in at 540 calories a bottle.


  3. Koreans aren’t skinny; Americans & westerners are just fat. When you have the “fatacceptance” movement calling 170 lb women beautiful and “curvy” instead of what they really are (fat and overweight), that’s just wrong. Even worse, they begin to redefine healthy weight women as “cis-weighted” and “skinny” as if they are also abnormal. Sick and tired of fatties trying to marginalize people who are committed to fitness. Go fuck off.


    1. I Agree that the fat acceptance movement has gone overboard that it’s telling women it’s OK to be overweight. It’s never OK to be overweight! It’s a horrible thing because it goes beyond looks and can kill you or affect your life in detrimental ways when it concerns your health.

      I DON’T Agree with the negative tone of your vernacular skills. Calling people fatties etc… you’re in no way trying to express your opinion in a positive light and while these people who push for the fat acceptance movement. It’s mostly due to people probably like YOU who act like fucking JERKS to them just because they are overweight. They already know it’s not healthy… they don’t need some asshole making them feel worse then they already do.


    2. This was an exceptionlly nasty comment. First of all, skinny does NOT equal healthy. The majority of asians are skinny fat. Skinny fat is just as unhealthy as overweight. Theres plenty of research to back that up too. The difference is that skiny fat just looks aesthetically nicer, but it not better than being overweight. Western people store fat on the outside, while asians store it around their organs. Both are not healthy, so get off the high horse of “They look skinny, so theyre so much healthier”.

      Second, youre claiming there is a majority movement of “fat acceptance” in the west. Youre wrong, the movement isnt about accepting fat, its about accepting your body. Everyone comes in different sizes, everyone looks different (much more so in the west than asia, where most women have a similar body shape.) There is nothing wrong about telling people they need to accept themselves as they are instead of trying to look like someone else. Thats positive, its promoting positivity. Your comment is just negative and wrong. Also, unless you know someone amd their doctor personally, you have ZERO idea about their overall health. You have absolutely no right to make whole statements about someomes health because of their weight. Weight is just one component of health and is not a,be all end,all. In fact, there was a study recently published that slightly overweight people are just as healthy as normal weight people and actually tend,to live longer because of the extra fat helping,during times of sickness.

      You know what isnt healthy? Having such negative emotions over how other people look whem it effects you in no way. Im sure that you also engage in unhealthy activities and really it makes you a hypocrit to critisize so , harshly someone else because you dont like how they look.


    3. I am a doctor and honestly, about 95% of the patients I see here in the SF EAST BAY area in California are overweight or obese. It is usually my Asian patients who are “healthy” weight, but to the rest of us, they look skinny and underweight.

      I think there is something to be said for the fat acceptance mentality. It’s destroying our health.


  4. I moved to South Korea a month ago, and it didn’t take me long to feel chubby. Before I got here, I wanted to lose 5-10 pounds. Now I feel like I need to lose at least 10 or 15. The crazy part is, most Americans would consider me thin. I wear a size 4 in women’s pants. The majority of young women here have straight, sticklike figures. I can’t look for pants at a shop without feeling like my hips, thighs and butt are super curvy. Sure, a lot of it probably has to do with their diet and lifestyle (lots of walking and biking), but I think it’s genetic, too.


  5. Their answers irked me, because I don’t think they are being honest and also there is a good deal of bias in their answers that aren’t reality and also a general ignorance of other countrys’ foods.

    Korean diet is very high in sodium, some of the highest sodium foods in the world actually. Stomach cancer is very common in Korea, much more so than in the west. There’s also a lot of nitrites and nitrates in their foods because of the fermenting. Diabetes is also a very common disease in Korea. They consume a good deal amount of carbs and sugars. So to say “our food is so healthy” isn’t true completely. There are very healthy foods in Korea, there are very healthy foods in any country. But when I lived in Korea, a lot of food is not comprised of “fresh greens and fruits”. They eat a lot of fermented foods high in sodium, I didn’t see salads a whole lot there ether, and also many Koreans survive on street foods, which are all deep fried and covered in heavy sauces made up of sugars and salt. And also many young Koreans eat a ton of ramen noodles.

    One thing I really didn’t like about their answers and it’s something I saw lot in Korea, is this whole idea that “western foods = bad, makes you fat. Korean food = the best, skinny” and it’s a very common opinion in Korea. However, Koreans think that all western food = fast food or always hamburgers and hotdogs. They don’t understand that western food is incredibly diverse. Most American families make their own meals at home most days of the week. Those meals include the same staples as Korean meals almost, usually some vegetables and a meat and a carb. Western food is so diverse and uses plenty of vegetables and meats and very healthy foods too. Also I find it rather hypocritical that some of the statements about western people always eating fast food and Koreans don’t. That’s total BS. Every time I walked past a McDonald’s or a Lotteria in Korea, it was ALWAYS packed. The local ma and pa restraunt serving home made Korean food right beside McDonald’s was empty, but McDonald’s I never saw empty. Lotteria too. Also Koreans eat ALOT of street foods and most of those are fried foods. So it’s a very bias belief, cause truth is Koreans are now consuming fast food and fried foods at a rate that is catching up with the western hemisphere.

    And I didn’t like how those women made it sound like it’s so naturally easy for Koreans to be thin. That is also total BS. I agree with the very first comment in this thread. I spent a few years in Korea and from what I experienced and understand, Korean women are incredibly self conscious about their weight and the women I knew, starved themselves a lot. They would only eat a bowl of rice and kimchi the whole day. Or just drink plain coffee all day. Also Korea has the highest consumption of diet pills in OECD. And most doctor places will try to give you some kind of diet pill or diet shot or something like that. THey really pimp it out in Korea with the diet pills. Also, when I would go into a Dunkin’ Doughnuts bathroom, it always reeked of vomitt and I often heard girls throwing up after eating in the restraurants. So no, it does not come that easy for them. They are starving, always dieting, taking pills, doing “Fat blocking shots”, throwing up, etc,. And also Liposuction is a pretty common surgery there. So it’s misleading to say that they just have these perfects diets and these bodies that just naturally are so thin. It’s not true. And Korean women really, really spend an extreme amount of time worrying about their appearance and I don’t think it’s healthy and it’s led to a culture that is very lookism, very discriminatory about looks, and deeply insecure enough that plastic surgery is a norm there. Telling their kids they need plastic surgery is not uncommon there. It’s just seen as a “necessity” now. And there are tons of Plastic surgery ads everywhere in Seoul telling people they are ugly and they need to look like the woman/man in the picture. It’s disturbing.


    1. I think you are reading a little too far in the answers from these woman and it’s assumptive to say they are speaking from ignorance. Nonetheless, you raise some valid points and I have also seen some of the things you described. This is a neutral article. The writer asked questions and her Korean coworkers responded. That’s it. Take it for what it’s worth.


  6. Yes~! I too have lived in Korea for 4 years and come from a city in Canada with a lot of Asian women, and always thought Asian women were just naturally small.~~until, I lived here and worked daily with many Korean women~~who diet extremely!!

    I had one co-teacher who only ate at night..she didn’t feel comfortable teaching if she ate. Another K-friend told me she gains weight if she eats three meals a day. The assistant would tell me she had only drank coffee when she showed up for work at 1:00 but she admitted it was a diet.
    I had no idea..and apparently..al these news articles, who continuously say that it’s the Asian diet…don’t either!
    Anyone, who has lived in Asia for a long time knows this. When Korean women go out to dinner, they will buy 1 piece of cake, and share it, and still, only half will be left.
    The culture is actually very traditional…well I think it’s changing..but Korean women actually talk in baby voices at times, and have a whole behaviour that they have to put on.. One of my coteachers, who was dieting, got stuff put into her face, because her face was getting too small,,,so she would look younger, her sister got some chemical injected into her leg because she thought it looked too muscular…so the muscle would atrophy.
    It really is quite disturbing, and, although quite a few of us are getting fat in the West, Asia is simply another extreme. What’s is also disturbing are the foreign men who extoll all the beauty of Asian women, but don’t seem to notice or mind? that these girls (and they must see it if they date an Asian women) don’t eat. And what’s more, there is an underlying anger in Asian women and I don’t really blame them frankly. Their culture is really hard on women. They must basically keep the same figure as a child to fit in in their culture.


  7. I do believe that curvy and normal women are more beautiful than skinny. Eat everything don’t indulge yourselft into hunger but moderately that is the key of attaining healthy and aesthetically beautiful body. Exercise is a must even a 30 minutes walking or running everyday will help u a lot. After all we will only live once so why resist those yummy food. Discipline is the key in attaining once goal.


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