According to a recent poll reported by the Yonhap News Agency, South Korea boasts an obesity rate of 3.5 percent–one of the lowest rates in the entire world. In contrast, the United States boasts one of the world’s highest obesity rates, 34.4 percent, with Mexico and New Zealand trailing behind by 30 and 25 percent.
But how do Koreans stay slim? Most Americans assume it’s due to genetics, when it’s actually their diet that may attribute to their thinness. The Cambridge World History of Food reports a typical Korean diet consists of 13 percent fat on average–a typical European diet contains triple this amount. Some Americans consume more.
So why exactly is a Korean diet healthy?
Health Benefits of a Korean Diet
1. Vegetables are a staple of the Korean diet. Banchan, or Korean side dishes, are served with every meal, consisting of kimchi, bean sprouts, spinach and other vegetables. Many Korean dishes, such as bibimbap and kimchi jjigae, are primarily vegetable-based. The health benefits of these vegetables are numerous–aside from containing vitamins A, C and E, it’s also low in calories.
2. Meat is used sparingly. This isn’t to suggest meat is unhealthy–in moderation, meat has many health benefits–but Koreans typically eat leaner, healthier selections, such as lean beef, chicken breasts and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This eliminates another source of saturated fat intake, decreasing their risk for heart disease.
3. Koreans consume kimchi daily, if not during every meal. Reports show that kimchi is rich in vitamins A and C, which promotes eye, bone and skin health. It also contains lactic acid, which may improve gastrointestinal health. Some studies suggest kimchi may also prevent obesity and diabetes. Better yet, a serving of kimchi yields less than 100 calories.
4. Garlic is used in excess. You name it: from dakdoritang (spicy chicken stew) to bulgogi, there’s a good chance you’ve consumed numerous helpings of garlic if you eat a typical Korean diet. And its health benefits are numerous. According to a 2001 study reported by BBC News, people who consumed garlic daily were half as likely to catch the common cold. Preliminary animal studies show it may also prevent heart disease and high blood pressure, common health conditions that affect overweight or obese people.
The health benefits of a Korean diet don’t just end here-some dishes also contain vitamins and minerals that may counteract the effects of obesity, such as the risk for certain cancers and heart problems.
“S. Korea’s obesity rate lowest in OECD” (koreatimes.co.kr)
Cecilia H. Lee, “Why Korean women don’t get fat” (Beachbody.com)
“Garlic ‘prevents common cold'” (http://news.bbc.co.uk)