Korean cuisine is characterized by plenty of vegetables, rice, and meat or fish. Meals are often served with a variety of small sides, broth-based soups, and fermented cabbage (kimchi).
It’s generally considered healthy and known for incorporating many health-promoting ingredients like fermented foods. However, some dishes are not as nutritious as others.
This article provides an overview of Korean food and how to make healthy choices when ordering at a restaurant or cooking at home.
Korean culture emphasizes food as a source of nourishment and healing. Throughout its history, food has been seen as medicine (1).
As a result, Korean cuisine is generally healthy. For example, a traditional Korean meal known as bapsang features rice (bap), several side dishes (banchan), soups or stew (kuk), fermented vegetables, and sometimes grilled meats or seafood (2).
Many Korean side dishes include vegetables. These can be seasoned with fermented sauces and condiments like soybean paste (doenjang), soy sauce (ganjang), and hot pepper paste (gochujang) (1).
Other common fermented foods include salted seafood (jeotgal) and cabbage. Kimchi can be seasoned in different ways, usually with salt, ginger, garlic, and/or red pepper flakes (gochugaru) (1).
Besides fermentation, common cooking methods include blanching, boiling, pickling, and grilling. Baking and frying are less common, although some popular foods like Korean fried chicken are fried (2).
Korean meals typically feature seasoned vegetable sides, rice, soup, kimchi, and meat or seafood. Grilling, fermenting, boiling, pickling, and blanching are common cooking methods.
Considering the ingredients and cooking methods of the traditional Korean diet, it’s generally considered healthy. Because they’re often high in vegetables and cooked without much oil, Korean meals are often lower in calories than traditional American meals (2,
One observational study associated eating a traditional Korean diet with a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke (
What’s more, fermented foods — like those featured in Korean cuisine — offer health benefits thanks to their content of gut-friendly bacteria called probiotics (
Older studies in humans also suggest that eating kimchi decreases body weight and risk factors for heart disease. Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, compounds in kimchi may help regulate weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood fat levels (
Hot pepper paste and red pepper flakes are other common ingredients in Korean meals. The compound that makes these foods spicy is called capsaicin. It may support a healthy metabolism, blood pressure, and weight (
Still, some aspects of Korean food may not be so healthy.
First, pickled and fermented foods, Korean-style soups, and Korean condiments like BBQ sauces tend to be high in salt. Eating too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart and kidney diseases (
Second, Korean restaurants may serve their food family-style rather than plated as single serves. If you’re watching your weight, it can be hard to stick to appropriate portion sizes with this style of eating.
Most Korean food is healthy and full of nutritious foods like vegetables and kimchi. Still, some common foods can be high in salt, and it can be easy to overeat if meals are served family-style.
Many Korean dishes are healthy. Here’s a list of some of the best options.
- Fermented cabbage. Reap the benefits of kimchi by eating this fermented cabbage seasoned with garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes with your meals.
- Korean rice bowl (bibimbap). Made with rice, vegetables, meat, and egg, this bowl is a balanced and nutritious meal. You can skip the meat or replace it with tofu if you follow a vegetarian diet.
- Seaweed and rice rolls (kimbap/gimbap). These rolls resemble sushi and can be made with vegetables, meat, eggs, and/or fish, among many other variations. They make a good on-the-go meal or snack.
- Cold soy milk noodle soup (konggusku). This chilled noodle soup features wheat noodles in a soy milk broth. It’s often topped with cucumbers and tomatoes and makes a delicious, light meal.
- Sliced beef with vegetables and rice (bulgolgi). This is one of the most popular Korean dishes. It’s high in protein and provides micronutrients, though it can be high in fat depending on the cut of meat that’s used. Add vegetable sides to round out your meal.
- Soft tofu stew (soondubu jjigae). Made with soft tofu, mushrooms and other vegetables, and sometimes meat, this spicy stew is a complete meal in one bowl.
- Steamed, stir-fried, and seasoned vegetable dishes. Steamed eggplant, stir-fried zucchini, seasoned bean sprouts, and seasoned spinach are among the many healthy vegetable sides served in Korean cuisine.
Healthy Korean dishes incorporate lots of vegetables and at least one protein source. Kimchi is a healthy addition to meals.
If you’re trying to lose weight or have a health condition that you manage via your diet, you may want to be mindful of certain Korean dishes. For example, some meals are high in salt and/or calories.
- Korean fried chicken. Korean fried chicken is known for its thin, crunchy exterior that surrounds tender, juicy chicken. However, since it’s fried and often coated in a salty, sugary sauce, it’s not always the most nutritious choice.
- Noodles in black bean sauce (jajangmyeon). Topped with a thick sauce made from black bean paste, pork, and vegetables, these noodles are a popular takeout dish in Korea. However, it’s typically high in calories from carbs and fat.
- Korean noodles (ramyun). This is the name for Korean instant noodles similar to Japanese ramen. They’re popular, and many people upgrade them with wholesome veggies and an egg. Still, they’re high in sodium, which some people may need to be mindful of.
Dishes that are high in fat, salt, or calories exist in every type of cuisine. These Korean meals are delicious but consider choosing them less often than other dishes.
When dining at a Korean restaurant
If you’re eating at a Korean restaurant, consider choosing a meal from the above list of healthy foods.
If you’re dining with a group and the food is served family-style, assess all the options before plating up.
Aim to fill half your plate with vegetable side dishes, a quarter of your plate with a protein source, and add just a small portion of rice or noodles. Do your best to eat slowly and mindfully, and wait a little while before reaching for more food to see whether you’re still hungry.
If you’re watching your weight, choose leaner proteins like legume- and soy-based options like tofu. Opt for seafood over fattier cuts of meat and avoid deep-fried foods.
If you have diabetes or need to manage your blood sugar for other reasons, be careful not to load up on rice or noodles. There are usually plenty of delicious dishes with non-starchy vegetables to enjoy instead.
Finally, limit the kimchi, pickled veggies, sauces, and high sodium soups if you’re watching your sodium intake.
When cooking Korean food at home
You can apply similar principles when trying to cook healthy Korean food at home.
Look for recipes that have a balance of protein, fat, carbs, and non-starchy vegetables. Don’t go overboard on fatty meats or carb-heavy rice.
When making recipes that call for fermented sauces or other condiments, be wary of the salt content. Add a small amount first, then give the dish a taste. Only then should you adjust the seasonings to avoid adding too much sodium.
If you’re using beef or pork in a recipe but want to reduce the fat content, ask a butcher for a leaner cut. Alternatively, serve the dish with more veggies and a smaller portion of meat.
When eating at a Korean restaurant or cooking Korean food at home, be wary of the salt and fat content of meals, as well as your portion sizes.
The traditional Korean diet is healthy. It’s centered around vegetables, fermented foods like kimchi, soups, rice, and meat or seafood.
Healthy Korean food choices include kimchi, seasoned or steamed vegetable side dishes, bibimbap, and konggusku, among many others.
However, Korean food tends to be high in salt. Plus, some dishes are high in fat and/or calories.