The Health Benefits and Risks of the Traditional Korean Diet

The Health Benefits and Risks of the Traditional Korean Diet
By Adam Weaver

The traditional Korean diet was formed based on the resources that the Korean people had available to them. Korea is located on a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, with many mountains in the interior of the peninsula. Thus Koreans formed their diet around the food they were able to gather from the sea, such as fish, shellfish and seaweed, as well as the food they were able to grow in the interior of their country. The unique diet that the Koreans developed has many health benefits, but also has some risks associated with it as well.

In order to truly understand the Korean diet, one must first understand how Koreans eat. Koreans typically categorize their foods into one of three categories: Joo-sik (staple foods), Joo-chan (main dishes) and Boo-chan (side dishes). The staple food of the Korean diet is primarily white rice, but Koreans do also consume barley, beans, peas, millet, wheat and red-beans. The staple foods are the primary source of energy in the Korean diet. They account for 55 to 60 percent of the energy consumed (Lee et al, 2001). The main dishes that Koreans eat are most commonly in the form of soups. These soups typically contain tofu, fish, shellfish or any combination of those ingredients. They may also contain beef or pork, but these soups are eaten less frequently than the ones that contain seafood and tofu. In addition there are also many main dishes that contained grilled beef, pork or fish, but in a traditional Korean diet these items are only consumed on special occasions. In a traditional Korean diet only 15 to 20 percent of the energy consumed comes from fat (Lee et al, 2001). The side dishes that are consumed during Korean meals are typically made from vegetables, seaweed, mushrooms and some proteins, such as fish or squid. At every meal at least one of these side dishes is a kimchi or a pickled and fermented vegetable. The side dishes in the Korean diet are the primary sources of vitamins and minerals. At a traditional Korean meal each person would have their own bowl of rice and soup, but the entire table would share kimchi and a number of different side dishes.

One of the most important parts of the traditional Korean diet is the fermented foods. Koreans developed these foods so they could store and eat vegetables and other products over winter before there was refrigeration. These foods were developed in Korea 1700 years ago. The most important of the fermented foods in the Korean diet is the kimchis, or the pickled and fermented vegetables. Koreans typically eat 100 to 200 grams of kimchi per day (Kim & Oh, 1996). The traditional vegetable used by Koreans to make kimchi is cabbage, however they also use radish, cucumber, green onions and many other vegetables as well. These vegetables are mixed with garlic red pepper and other spices and are then soaked in brine and left to ferment. Kimchi is a very good source of vitamins and minerals. The fermentation process enhances the vitamin content of the kim chi. The vitamin C content of kimchi increases through the first two weeks of fermentation before it begins to decline again. Similarly the content of Vitamin B12 in kimchi increases for the first three weeks of fermentation before it begins to decline. Interestingly, the optimal taste of kimchi is after two to three weeks of fermentation when the vitamin content is the highest. The Nutrient content of some common types of Kim chi is listed in the table below.

Nutrients and Minerals Whole Cabbage Kimchi (per 100g) Cubed Radish Kimchi (per 100g) Juicy Kimchi (per 100g) Salted Radish Kimchi (per 100g)
Kilocalories 19 31 9 14
Protein 2.0g 2.7g 0.7g 0.9g
Fat 0.6g 0.8g 0.2g 0.1g
Carbohydrates 1.3g 3.2g 1.1g 2.2g
Fiber 7.2g 5.6g 4.2g 0.9g
Calcium 28mg 5mg 1mg 43mg
Phosphorous - - - 24mg
Iron - - - 1.0mg
Vitamin A 492IU 946IU 0 0
Vitamin B1 0.03mg 0.03mg 0.01mg -
Vitamin B2 0.06mg 0.06mg 0.03mg 0.02mg
Niacin 2.1mg 5.8mg 1.0mg 0.2mg
Vitamin C 12mg 10mg 7mg -
*as adapted from (Kim & Oh, 1996)

Koreans also use some other fermented products in their diets. Chang, or fermented bean products, make up the principal condiments that Koreans use. These include soy sauce, soy bean paste and red pepper bean paste. Koreans typically eat 20 to 30 grams of these products per day (Kim & Oh, 1996). Jeot, or fermented fish and shellfish, are also a critical part of Korean food. In these products whole fish or shellfish are fermented with salt and other seasonings. Jeot is used to provide flavor to many Korean dishes. Although, the fermented foods in the Korean diet can provide a lot of vitamins and minerals, they also have a very high sodium content. For instance 100 grams of cabbage kimchi contains 277 milligrams of sodium. The use of these products makes a traditional Korean diet very high in sodium.

Koreans eat white rice to obtain a majority of their energy needs. Although white rice is a poor source of many nutrients it is able to provide a good amount of energy from the carbohydrates it contains. In addition, Koreans also eat a good amount of millet and barley in their diet which provides a more nutrient dense alternative to white rice.

A good way to analyze the nutrient content of Korean main dishes, is to examine one typical Korean dish. We will look at the Korean soup soon doo boo, or soft tofu soup, and analyze its nutrient content. Below is a table that shows the nutrient content of a 4 cup bowl of soon doo boo.

Nutrients and Minerals Amount % Daily Value
Kilocalories 296.23
Carbohydrates 12.35g
Fats 19.80g
Protein 19.53g 32.50%
Saturated Fat 1.92g
Monounsaturated Fat 5.92g
Polyunsaturated Fat 10g
Cholesterol 120mg 40.00%
Omega-6 Linoleic Acid 5.97g 35.00%
Omega-3 Linolenic Acid 0.51g 35.00%
Fiber 3g 8.00%
Thiamin 0.105mg 9.00%
Riboflavin 0.28mg 21.50%
Niacin 1.52mg 9.50%
Vitamin B6 0.36mg 28.50%
Vitamin B12 21.3ug 889.00%
Folate 41.8ug 10.50%
Vitamin C 20.23mg 22.00%
Vitamin D 0.32ug 7.50%
Vitamin A 532ug 59.00%
Vitamin E 0.47mg 3.00%
*as determined by DA Plus software

As one can see soon doo boo is a relatively low calorie, low fat and nutritious soup. It contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. It has an especially large content of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, vitamin B6 and B12 and vitamin A. Unfortunately it also has a large concentration of sodium. This adds to the large amount of sodium in a traditional Korean diet.

The traditional Korean diet relies on carbohydrates to provide energy and vegetables to provide much of the nutrients that the body needs. Koreans traditionally only ate enough protein as their bodies needed. When compared to a western diet, Koreans eat much less fat and more complex carbohydrates and fiber. The ratio of vegetables to meat and fish in a traditional Korean diet is over 2 to 1 (Lee et al, 2001). As you can imagine a diet that is low in fat and high in carbohydrates and vegetables would have a lot of health benefits. The traditional Korean diet seems to help to prevent obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Studies done in 2000 and 2002 by researchers at Yonsei University and the University of North Carolina showed that although Korean society has developed economically and adopted a somewhat more western diet, Koreans still have a significantly lower rate of obesity and cardiovascular disease than the Japanese and Chinese who have gone through the same transition (Kim & Popkin, 2000, 2002). The authors of these articles posit that the probable reason that Koreans have lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease is because Koreans have held on to many aspects of their traditional diet even as their diet has changed. Although Koreans have been eating more meat, they still eat a diet that is very low in fat, high in carbohydrates and contains a lot of vegetables. Kimchis in particular have been listed as a very healthy food. Kimchis contain antioxidants and lactobacillus as well as large amounts of vitamins and minerals. Kimchi has been reported as having hypolipidemic, anticancer and antimutagenic effects (Lee et al, 2001). Although eating a traditional Korean diet can incur many health benefits, the high sodium content of many of the foods can cause an increased risk of hypertension. A study done in 2009 compared samples of Korean males who ate a western style diet and those who ate a traditional diet. This study found that the rates of hypertension amongst the two groups did not show any difference (Kim 2009). The authors stated that one of the reasons this may have been true was because of the consumption of many salted and fermented vegetables instead of fresh vegetables in the traditional Korean diet. Overall, a traditional Korean diet seems as if it can help to prevent obesity, cancer and many other degenerative diseases, but the high sodium content of this diet may leave a person at risk for hypertension.

Sook Hee Kim and Se-Young Oh. “Cultural and Nutritional Aspects of Traditional Korean Diet.” World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics. 79 (1996): 109-132.

Mee Sook Lee, Mee_Kyung Woo, Chung-Shil Kwak, Se-In Oh and Sang-Chul Park. “Analysis of Traditional Korean Food Patterns According to the Healthy Diet Based on the Database of Favorite Korean Foods.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 928 (2001): 348.

Min-June Lee, Barry M. Popkin and Soowon Kim. “The Unique Aspects of the Nutrition Transition in South Korea: The retention of healthful elements in their traditional diet.” Public Health Nutrition. 5(1A) (2002): 197-203.

Soowon Kim, Soojae Moon and Barry M. Popkin. “The Nutrition Transition in South Korea.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 71 (2000): 44-53.

Young Ok Kim. “Dietary patterns associated with hypertension among Korean males.” Nutrition Research and Practice. 3(2) (2009): 162-166.


Boo-chan (Kimchis are in the upper right and lower center bowls).

Steamed rice

Steamed white rice, served with every Korean meal.

Soon doo boo

Soon doo boo. Korean soft tofu soup.

Bi Bim Bap

Bi bim bap. A Korean rice dish.

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