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Adapt traditional Korean cooking

For better or for worse, eating habits play a key role in chronic disease. Traditional diets among Asian countries such as Japan, China, Thailand and Korea have been highlighted for their various health benefits in disease prevention. As economic growth has occurred, Asian countries have experienced advancements in technology, trading of goods, and decreases in poverty and malnutrition.

Unfortunately, this has also resulted in a decline and replacement of traditional eating patterns to more westernized foods. Predictably, there’s been an increase in empty calories from sugar and fat, and a decrease in whole grains, fish, poultry and fruits and vegetables, resulting in a steady climb in chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

But despite being one of the first Asian countries to gain financial growth, South Korea has experienced only a minor increase in chronic disease. This slower shift has been attributed to Koreans’ ability to better sustain the traditional diet. Korean government and agencies have enacted strong initiatives to promote the importance of traditional ways while healthfully adjusting to modernizing times.

Such initiatives have included emphasis on local agriculture, offering and promoting traditional cooking classes to the public. Several studies have shown the closer individuals followed the Korean diet, the lower the rates of metabolic disease, defined as “a cluster of conditions related to increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels—that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.”

In Canada, chronic disease affects 60 per cent of the population. Diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases in particular are responsible for 67 per cent of all deaths. Overweight/obesity is thought to be a major driving force behind these elevated levels. It’s no wonder the traditional Korean diet has been universally gaining more attention, as statistics show that 20 per cent of Canadians (compared to 5 per cent of Koreans) are obese. The diet is not as well known as Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine, so let’s dive a little deeper to see what exactly it entails.

The traditional Korean diet (often referred to as K-diet) focuses on moderation and variety. All meals include a variety of side dishes consisting of basic grains, an abundance of vegetables, soup, fermented foods, and seasonings with a minimal intake of fat and animal products. Equally as important as what we eat are how and with whom we eat.

Unlike the popular dine and dash approach in North America, Korean tradition is to eat at a moderate pace; anything else is considered disrespectful. It takes 15 to 20 minutes for our stomachs to signal to our brains that we’re full. Slowing down, chewing slowly and checking in with your fullness/hunger cues may help cut back on calories and avoid feeling unpleasantly stuffed. Try using chopsticks as research has shown their use may help you slow down your pace.

Main components of the meal

Bap (rice or bulgur) is the main source of carbohydrate. In fact, rice is such an essential part of the diet that “Have you eaten rice yet?” is as common in Korea as asking how someone is. Bulgur and multigrain rice are whole grain and provides a good source of fibre, although white rice is also commonly served.

Guk, a broth-based soup, is served at all meals, unlike many cultures where it’s served before or after the meal. It is thought to help with digestion. Although broth based soups can be salty they are often filling and low calorie, so they may help with weight control.

Meals are served with a variety of side dishes called banchan. Other than the seasoning, each banchan typically consists of one main ingredient and are not mixed. Fermented, raw or cooked vegetables make up the majority of side dishes including, cabbage, spinach, bean sprouts, radish, cucumber and seaweed. Protein-rich banchan dishes (mostly fish, poultry, soy, beef and pork) are served in small portions and traditionally use the leaner options. Kimchi is made of spicy fermented vegetables and is a staple served at all meals.

Aiming for a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and whole grains, and lower in fatty protein, is a universal recommendation to decrease risk of chronic disease; i.e. Canada’s food guide, Mediterranean and vegetarian diets. According to the World Health Organization, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake is the leading cause of 31 per cent of ischemic heart disease, 11 per cent of strokes and 19 per cent of gastrointestinal cancers; a diet high in saturated fat is also thought to increase risks of these diseases.

Korean ancestors depended on fermentation as a main method of food preservation (and added flavour) especially during times when food supply was limited. These foods continue to be a major part of the traditional diet today. Kimchi, jang (a fermented soy sauce/paste) and jeotgal (fermented fish sauce) are staples typically consumed at all meals. The fermenting process also produces a probiotic (good bacteria) called lactobacillales or lactic acid bacteria (LAB), the same strain found in many probiotic yogourts. Probiotics are perhaps best known for improving digestive health. Emerging research shows potential healthy benefits in many situations such as weight management, lowering cholesterol, and improved brain and immune function.

Salt is required in fermatation of Korean foods, which may also use vinegar, garlic and chili peppers for additional flavour. An excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure—but several studies have failed to find a link between salty fermented foods, particularly kimchi, and elevated blood pressure. It’s not known whether this is due to the probiotic, the combination of the nutrients or the health benefits of the overall diet. If you have concerns about high blood pressure, a limited sodium intake is recommended. You can still reap the benefits of these foods; just be mindful to balance them as part of your daily salt limits.

In addition to jang, there are many other flavouring agents. Vinegar is commonly added to fresh vegetables. Yangnyeom is a herb and spice seasoning made up of a mixture of onion, green onion, garlic and red peppers. This seasoning is believed to enhance the health benefits in the rest of meal.

Fat is added to enhance flavour, aid in cooking, and provide a source of energy. There is evidence to support the anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy benefits of unsaturated fat (cooking oils, nuts, seeds) while saturated fat (fatty animal and dairy products, coconut and palm oils) do the opposite. As previously mentioned, the Korean diet is low in total fat and especially low in saturated fat. Sesame or perilla seeds and oil are the most common sources, often added sparingly to prepared dishes. Both are good sources of unsaturated fats, and perilla oil provides a rich source of omega-3.

Desserts and beverages that are highly sugared are not common in the traditional Korean diet. Tea, viewed as the dessert, is served at the end of the meal. There are a variety of Korean flavoured teas but most traditional is hot water from scorched rice/bulgur. A slice of fruit may also be served to cleanse the palate.

The traditional Korean diet emphasizes the importance of home-cooked meals. Try experimenting with new recipes and slowly incorporate various components and dishes of the Korean diet.

If you’re dining out, keep in mind that ethnic restaurants outside their countries are often adjusted to suit the westernized palette and dishes are laced with sugar, salt and oils. Often, they’re nutritionally comparable to fast food. To keep it healthy, ask the waiter about these added ingredients and cooking methods. When available, choose brown rice or bulgur over white rice and noodles. Order mostly vegetable and legume dishes, and soups that are not filled with an abundance of empty-calorie white rice or noodles. Try not to make meat dishes the focal point of the meal, or go meatless all together. Choose grilled or boiled fish and poultry over fried, and minimize beef and pork. Be mindful of your pace, use chopsticks and enjoy your company.

A letter

After recently reading Maureen Tilley’s excellent article on irritable bowel syndrome, just two things:

1. One important thing I feel has been missed—IBS suffers should be eliminating all processed foods, and
2. I noticed under soluble fibre and insoluble fibre Maureen mentions vegetables. Are they both?

Maybe this could be explained further. I must commend Maureen for not recommending typical pills/drugs often prescribed to patients with IBS instead of diet changes. Not a good thing. I had suffered from IBS for years until I made lifestyle changes to whole foods and no processed foods. Have not had a problem for more than 10 years.

Corinne Hoebers (by email)

Maureen Tilley is a Registered Dietitian & author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!

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