Being Vegetarian in Korea: Weight-loss diets in Korea

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Last Updated on March 25, 2010 by Christine Kaaloa

SAM 2045Being Vegetarian in Korea: Weight-loss diets in Korea

I’m not sure how weight-loss diets in Korea work with Koreans, but let me shed light on how it works with foreigners, who’ve recently moved there… During my orientation, two girls I knew claimed to drop pants sizes within their first week of arriving.

Not possible, right? Not without some major medical operation…  but feeling my pants hang off of my body last week at work, the word “belt” comes to mind. As a vegetarian in Korea, this recent shrinkage can only be explained through the five types of natural weight-loss diets I’ve experienced in Korea.

Five types of weight-loss diets  in Korea 

1. The Traveler’s Diet

Being vegetarian in Korea and a traveler, I always feel like there’s something in the food of a different country, that despite how fried, oily or creamy something is… I lose weight.  In Thailand,  I lived on street food and almost everything I ate had a level of “deep-fried guilt” to it (even the bugs!) Yet upon my return, I was pounds lighter !

Many who travel to Asia claim the same experiences. I understand the stress of navigating a foreign place, activity replacing snacking habits and the constant movement to get your sightseeing in. Maybe all of that burns calories…

2. The Smell of “Foreign” Diet

There is such a thing as too foreign, too fast.

For the past three weeks, my stomach has unconsciously balled itself into a fist and won’t come out of its corner. It’s actually developed “trust issues” with food in Korea and not because the food tastes bad.  Why then?

It smells foreign“. Okay, I know that sounds bad, but you know what I’m talking about.  It’s not Moroccan-foreign, Indian-foreign or even funky N.Y.C. Chinatown-foreign. It’s that special blend of “Korean Spicy Mystery Meat & Fish…“, mixed with the perfume of food fermentation and herbal musk.  I’m not saying it’s all bad, just ALL DIFFERENT.

It chimes in flashback images of Korean Fear Factor foods I’ve seen on the streets,  strange ocean life that I pass by in neighborhood restaurant fish tanks on my way to work or the knowledge that on my block there’s a restaurant that serves dog.

As a result, every sip or bite  is a reluctant “taste test”, until my tasting buds open and give me a green light.

SAM 2045Bundaegi is a Popular Snack in Korea: Cooked Silkworm Larvae.
This was my first bad food experience in Korea, turning me off to many foods.
food 19651More Fear Factor Foods in Korea

flute 2165
meSean 2161From my Photo Album: Korea-Food

School cafeteria lunches are something I look forward to- they’re really delicious and it helps me familiarize myself with foods in Korea in a safe trial-and-error environment. I can see my food and there’s a supportive staff to tell me what it’s all about if I ever question it. There’s always a form of soup, rice and veggie panchan that I love. But the moment I come within 20 feet of the lunchroom, the whiff of foreign hits me and my stomach still clenches.

schfood 2483From My Elementary School in Daegu

Cooking is an option I am aware of. The ridiculous problem- you’ll laugh- even the neighborhood grocery stores and fresh markets smell foreign!  I’ve tasted vegetables that hit my mouth as “wrong” and fruits and veggies in winter don’t taste sweet or the same as… well, anywhere else I’ve been! It’s a weird personal food phase I’m going through; but generally, I’m put off by a lot of things right now.

Perhaps it’s the fear of getting sick, accidentally biting into mystery meat hidden inside dishes or having that one bad reaction that will turn me off to Korean food for the rest of the year. Bad experiences with food? You only need one. Enough of them can turn you into a vegetarian in Korea.

Advice: Proceed with caution.

3. The Kimchi Diet

Kimchi is a fermented cabbage seasoned in spices  and spices and is  served at every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Kimchi has good health benefits and it also helps boost your metabolism for weight-loss. That’s the Kimchi Diet.

Incidentally, although kimchi is a vegetable, it’s not vegetarian. Kimchi is made with seafood. The flavor is a combination of garlic, fish sauce and chili . I’ll be allowing my diet to open to seafood. Most Korean dishes will likely have fish sauce in the..

SAM 2584

4. The Asian Diet: Good habits vs. fatty ones

Many say Asian diets are healthier than Western ones:

  •  Koreans  love things which come in miniature sizes.

Portions are generally smaller than Westerners portions. Jumbo Big Gulp drinks?

Try kiddie cups!

Whenever the teachers at my school excitedly offer me coffee in the morning – they hand me a “half-filled kiddie cup” and I have to make the tiniest mouth to sip it!  Drinking water after eating (in Korea they drink their water after meals) will get you a whole-filled kiddie cup! I thought I would fall down from dehydration but these sizes are something you eventually get used to.

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  • The Korean diet is heavy with vegetable panchan.

Panchan is the Korean word for “side dishes” and they’re a bunch of small bowls, which come free with your meals. This is often refilled so you can eat as much as you like. Rice is another filler and staple. Meat however, is a precious commodity and often, small portions of lean meats such as fish and poultry are used.

SAM 2104From EPIK Program Feb 2010

  •  Korea is a health conscious country.

Not only would it surprise you to see everyone from children to grandparents and ajummas gravitate to the mountains for hiking during weekends. Koreans love to hike and to stay healthy(my short video here). People still believe in the old tradition of herbal remedy, like to cook with fresh ingredients, produce and meats, serve fruits as desserts at dinner and snacking is not a pasttime as it is for Americans.

Koreans don’t like fatty, greasy or oily foods in their meals. Much of Korean food is prepared with a good health in mind.

Aside from red chili paste, you won’t find your food drowning in many curries, gravies or dripping from a deep-frying pan..

5. The Asian Red-Face Diet

Just how spicy are Korean foods?

Most Korean foods are spicy on some level; and this can signal good things for the metabolism! Whenever I order a dish that comes “extra spicy”, my face heats up and feels the way some Asians look when they’ve had too much beer, wine or soju.

I don’t have Asian Red-Face genes- only on rare occasions but when I hit Korean Extra Spicy, my eyes tear, my face feels like it goes purple, and my nose wants to flood into Niagara.

Note: nose blowing is something you never do while eating; it is bad etiquette in Korea.

SAM 2441
Soon Doo Bu Jigae (Spicy Tofu soup & one of my favorites)

There are many forms of foreigner weight-loss diets in Korea and if you’re a vegetarian in Korea, this can only accelerate.

* Note: I recently (as of April 6)  found this site explaining Korean food and its different types of dishes. This is helpful to those who are research curious as to what Korean food offers and what you can work with or around.

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Bizarre Foods, Off-beat Travel, Vegetarian Life


  • […] my first time doing so on a long-term basis. I didn’t have a helpful Korean co-teacher, I had trouble finding vegetarian food and language barriers posed small […]

  • Derek Hippler
    January 7, 2013 6:45 am

    Great article! I was confused about your love of kimchi though. Isn’t that usually made with fish paste (and therefore not vegetarian)?

    • @Derek: Initially, the idea that fish paste or sauce was mixed into many dishes, didn’t dawn on me until late in the game. I’m 97% veggie. My body doesn’t like meat but I’m sorta okay with some seafood (but it’d have to be really light). With the slight fishy things that I am unable to distinguish but am able to tolerate in eating, I’d prefer to turn a blind eye to. Man, finding things to eat was a hard journey.

  • HI,
    This has been so helpful for me as a vegetarian and moving to Busan soon to teach!! Thank you so much!

  • Ditto on the weight loss. I’ve dropped 10lbs since getting out here from the combination of walking everywhere and no fast food.

  • I am kinda flabbergasted about the “don’t blow your nose at the table” rule…I love spicy food, wether or not my innards do…I DO NOT CARE! but the first thing that runs (runs away that is) is my nose…so I imagine myself sitting there only having a slow “drip…..drip….drip” interrupt the silence. a drip into the food maybe….

  • Laura Cancun
    March 25, 2010 5:28 pm

    I also have the same issue with the Spanish word for “meat” (“carne”). “Carne” only refers to red meat, but there’s no word for meat in general. Since I’m not a vegetarian it hasn’t been an issue, but it did take awhile to learn!

    Oh. my.gosh. Your school lunch looks so good! Strawberries? For reals?

    Love all the pictures. The food there looks amazing.

    • @Katja: yeah, I guess you could say the extra drip adds to the spice. But its not fun. A bunch of us expats had lunch at a restaurant & you could tell from everyone’s eyes that their dish was spicy and that nose was beginning to drip. When yr around Koreans there’s that nose threshold you know not to break… the drip is on the cusp…it’s amazing how long you can hold it there. Of course, the napkins are like tissue paper too.

      @Laura:Thanks Laura! wow- so my line would have to be “no carne, pollo y pescada?” I wish Korean were Spanish & I knew the main food survival vocabulary. Ironically, Korean is like the Spanish of Asian languages but i’m not picking it up as quickly as I hoped. School lunches are pretty good. My plate is always minus the meat dishes- so far we’ve only had strawberries or bananas once… I wish there were more. yum

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