Health Habits to Leave and Take from Korea

When preparing for my move to Korea, a lot of the reading and video-watching I did talked about food, health, and weight loss. For every video that raves about how delicious or healthy Korean food is, there’s an article that warns about some of the unhealthy aspects of the cuisine. And for every English teacher that gets on camera to talk about how moving to Korea made them gain weight, there’s another one talking about how changing up their routine in Korea helped them lose weight.

So at the end of the day, it seems that Korea can be a great place to pick up some new healthy habits, while there are a few things you should probably leave behind. Of course, I’m not a health professional so this is more a reflection based on my personal experience. Take what I say with a grain of salt, or ten if you’re eating Korean food. Because dang, it’s salty. But that’s probably not a bad thing.

Take: eating fermented foods

These days, fermented foods are all the rage. As people tune into their own bodies more and learn about the wonders that a healthy gut can work, turning to fermented foods is natural. Here’s a great breakdown by BBC Good Food if you’re interested in knowing a little more about how fermented foods play a role in our health.

Plenty of Korean foods, namely kimchi, are fermented. That fantastic, sour taste comes from the fermentation process. Other foods like doenjang (soybean paste), gochujang (hot pepper paste), and sikhye  (rice drink) are also fermented. These foods can be great ways to boost your health. Be mindful of which ones are store bought though, as they won’t pack the same properties as homemade.


Leave: eating an unreasonable amount of fermented foods

Okay, if you’re a foreigner living in Korea, there’s a good chance this will never be a health issue for you. But, like anything in life, consuming fermented foods should be done in moderation. Eating kimchi in massive amounts puts individuals at a higher risk of stomach cancer, according to Kim Heon at Chungbuk National University. Of course, you’d have to be consuming a whole  lot of kimchi for a long time to increase the risk factor, but nonetheless, it’s better to know this little tidbit if you plan on incorporating more fermented foods in your diet.

Leave: piles of white rice

As I’ve explained in a previous post about Korean food culture, according to the average Korea, rice is power. Here, it is viewed as a staple food for energy and general functioning. This explains the looks of horror I get when I refuse rice from the lunch ladies at school. And as I work my way down the line to get the other parts of my lunch, I get yelled at for having no rice on my plate.

However, plain white rice isn’t always the healthiest choice. Of course, in small amounts it can provide plenty of nutrients and be a great addition to your meal. Unfortunately though, the amount of rice served here is often obscene. When I used to eat the full amount served to me, I would leave lunch feeling bloated and tired. Then, just ten to twenty minutes later I’d be feeling hungry again. Commence unnecessary snacking and general laziness. So I started cutting out the big piles of rice, which has prevented those negative reactions, and I now eat much less and feel a lot better without it.


Take: drinking green tea

There are plenty of health claims about drinking green tea circling around the internet. And most of them have yet to be proven. So it could be pretty much the same as drinking plain old water. And that’s the whole point! It can be really difficult to get enough water throughout the day, and adding a little flavour is a great way to encourage you to drink a more. I have 1-2 cups a day which means I’m staying a little more hydrated, and it’s especially nice in the winter to keep me warm in my freezing office!


Leave: drinking mix coffee

Okay, I doubt anyone really thinks of drinking mix coffee as a healthy habit. But it’s a habit nonetheless and it’s related to health. These things are terrible. They’re packed with  upwards of 6g of sugar, unnecessary calories, and preservatives, and let’s face it, none of the really good coffee taste. And yet, there seems to be plenty of benefits associated with drinking real, fresh-brewed coffee, in moderation of course. In any case, it’s better than mix coffee.

Take: skin care routines

Korea has done wonders for my skin, thanks to a consistent skin care routine. Many Korean skin care routines demand up to an hour a day of attention, but it really doesn’t need to be that intensive to get a healthy glow. I simply started applying toner and moisturizer after washing my face twice a day, and (though my acne hasn’t disappeared for good) my skin is much improved.

Of course, my diet is likely a factor as well, as I eat far less dairy, which has been a trigger for acne in the past. But in general, my skin feels and looks much healthier with just a few minutes added to my daily routine, and some very affordable products I purchased from The Face Shop.


Leave: obsession with appearances

While putting a little more effort into my looks since moving to Korea has had a few positive impacts on my health (i.e. improving my skin and eating a little healthier), the obsession with appearances here in Korea can be dangerous.

The excessive desire to be thin and beautiful here has the potential to not only be harmful to our bodies, but also our minds. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look good–who doesn’t? But I’ve noticed this desire is often taken to the extreme here in Korea, and it rubs off on foreigners too.

I’ve noticed even in myself that my self-confidence has wavered in the face of co-workers telling me I should do my hair or make-up differently, or having new acquaintances tell me I look chubby. At the end of the day, we just need to find confidence in ourselves and take care to not take such comments too seriously.

As for health in general, enjoy yourself, but find balance, and it shouldn’t be hard to stay relatively healthy both in and beyond Korea!

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