Healthy Food Travels: Japan and Korea

Oct 5, 2020 - 10 min read
Benefits of eating Korean food

Traveling or moving to a new exciting country is one of the greatest feelings ever. Everything is so adventurous, the people are exciting, and all we want to do is discover the whole place right away. Especially the food always offers a whole new world of ingredients, flavors and combinations.

Who doesn’t love strolling through a big city far away from home guided by appealing scents which are spread by mysterious colorful dishes along the road? So tempting. There are tons of meals and snacks to try and we usually have no idea where to start. The only concern that sometimes stops us from shoving in all the culinary delights at once is that we have no idea about how healthy they are.

That’s why we start this new series of guides for healthy food all over the world with tips on how to enjoy the best food and nonetheless eat healthy when you are discovering new destinations. Our first two candidates: Japan and South Korea (referred to as Korea).

Characteristics of the Cuisine in Japan and Korea

With an average life expectancy of 84 Japan is the world leader, while Korea is part of the world top ten with a very respectable 82 . The two countries are not only considered to boast some of the healthiest cuisines in the world, they also perform best when it comes to healthy eating habits and general availability of food, according to an Oxfam report .

As if there were not enough reasons already to pay these countries a visit, this reveals once more that it is time to go East. But first of all, it has to be emphasized that Korean and Japanese cuisine have similarities but can certainly not be seen as the same, since in many regards they differ fundamentally.

Though, due to the Japanese occupation of Korea many Japanese dishes stayed in Korea and vice versa many Korean dishes found the way to Japan. So no matter if you’re strolling through the neon light illuminated streets of Tokyo or you’re having a big night out in Seoul, you will come across elements of both these cuisines in both places – and most importantly, you will learn to love both of them.

Differences and Similarities

Both cuisines have basic elements in common, as seen in the main characteristics: rice (surprise!), a lot of vegetables and red meat or fish. But whereas the Korean cuisine is especially famous for various side dishes, the Japanese cuisine is known for the soups. Nonetheless, nowadays both countries have copied each other’s ideas in some adapted form.

Furthermore, the East Asian cuisine is definitely slow food – the Asian metropolians might be hectic, but when it comes to food, there’s no rush. Also, these cuisines are different from the Western eating style, since eating is all about eating together, instead of everybody having a separate dish.

Sharing is caring was a credo I learned from day one while I was living in East Asia. This also goes hand in hand with another characteristic: customization. Thanks to the variety of side dishes, everybody on the table can customize their meals according to individual preferences. The Western thought of just having one menu for dinner doesn’t suit here.

Why the Japanese and Korean Culinary Lifestyle is Healthier

I’m not going to mince matters now, but haven’t all of us who have been to East Asia wondered how Asians just generally are so much skinnier. It is very uncommon to cross paths with obese and overweight people in the buzz of Kyoto or Busan, unlike in European or American cities. That may partly be thanks to a better digestion, but the far bigger secret lays within the Asian nutrition. Some of the reasons for the healthier lifestyle do not have their roots in the food themselves but in the way of consuming food.

One of the biggest differences in eating healthier is one that you probably have not been aware of, even though it is obvious: chopsticks. Once you eat with chopsticks, you not only concentrate more on your food, it will also make you slow down, think about what you are eating more, and even help you lose weight, studies have shown .

What Makes Japanese and Korean Food Healthy

Additional to that, the smaller plates usually lead to a different consumption. Whereas in Western cultures you tend to eat until your plate is empty, in Japan and Korea you finish when you are not hungry anymore. During my time in Korea I also got told that Koreans learn about food balance from very young age onwards in school. Not a surprise in a country with one of the most competitive educational systems worldwide.

Interestingly, they even learn what to combine and how to balance out your food based on chemical names. Japanese and Koreans might not like the expression since it is Chinese philosophy, but I like to think of it as the Yin and Yang of food – something that would certainly also be a good adaption for many Western countries.

What Makes the Cuisine in Japan and Korea Healthy

Here comes what makes the East Asian eats so so special:

  • Fermentation

The process of fermentation preserves food, and creates beneficial enzymes. Also b-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and a big range of probiotics are the advantages of fermented food . Due to the long and cold winter, Koreans came up with an idea of fermenting food for the early months of a year. Thanks to that the national dish Kimchi (see below) was born. Besides Kimchi there are tons of other fermented dishes in the Korean and also Japanese cuisine such as miso soup and shou-yu, a soy sauce. Which build a bridge to the next big advantage:

  • Soy dishes

Soy bean meals, tofu and soymilk. Thanks to soy, Japanese and Korean restaurants provide you with large amounts of iron, calcium and proteins, whilst being low in carbohydrates and fats. Soybeans are all around, like in Doenjang.

  • Soups

I am not sure if this need clarification. Soups like miso are a complete protein, help digestion, restore probiotics and strengthen your immune system, just to name a few advantages . Though, due to the high content of sodium in some of them, keep the portions reasonable.

  • Vegetables

Other than in Western dishes, in Korea and Japan vegetables usually make a big part of the meal. The vegetable meat ratio is oftentimes 3:1 and also if not, you always get enough greens. Even breakfast often contains some veggies.

  • Rice Combination

Rice is rich in vitamins and helps you gain energy – especially if you have different types of rice as in East Asian countries. Also, since rice is easy to digest, it can be eaten frequently throughout the day.

  • Street Food

Whereas elsewhere considered to be the less healthy option, not all but lots of Korean and Japanese street food is actually quite good for you. Yes, even the super tasty beef or chicken skewers. Grilling allows the fat to drain away from the meat, and a large skewer of meat can be very filling while being full of protein and vitamins. Plus, they usually contain some vegetables too.

  • Asian Snacks and dessert

Asians generally go nuts or bananas. No, really. In Korea and Japan, people prefer to snack nuts or  dried fruits  instead of crisps or chocolate bars. Also the desserts like mochi ( Japanese sweet rice balls ) or red bean soup are oftentimes healthier than their Western counterparts.

  • Condiments

In the Western cuisine, we oftentimes choose sugary, packaged or fatty products such as ketchup or mayonnaise. In Japan and Korea condiments will generally be more natural .

  • Drinks

As you will recognize in Japan and Korea you will generally get free water. Oftentimes you will wonder why it is warm and not cold – like we would have it in Western countries. And even if it is hard to get used to it, it is indeed better for your weight , health and digestion.

Also, soft drinks are not so common and tea, especially green tea, is everywhere. Last but not least: Even the national alcoholic beverages soju in Korea and sake in Japan are healthier than what you’d consume in Western countries.

Chose Your Meal Right: The Healthiest Dishes in Japan and Korea

The food variety in Korea and Japan is tremendous. Thus, I do not only want to tell you why the culinary lifestyle of East Asians is healthier, you should also know some actual healthy dishes you should not miss out on.

The variety of different meals and regional varieties in both Japan and Korea is so enormous, that these few meals can just be seen as some of the basic healthy options, not a complete list. My main tip overall: Get over there and, based on these few tips, try everything that you come across:

  • Kimchi

Who would’ve thought that? The national dish of Korea is also the most important choice. Kimchi is not everybody’s darling but once you start eating it, you will build a relation with it. Kimchi and you will have your ups and downs but isn’t that what a  healthy relationship  is all about?

Oftentimes it is just a side dish but in Korea it comes with EVERY meal and it has tons of variations, so you really can not ignore it. Lots of Japanese dishes also include Kimchi nowadays. Natto would be a Japanese dish with a similar tradition but a really really special taste.

  • Sushi

Another surprising option, but it really should be pointed out. Apart from the deep fried choices, sushi is really healthy. It can be found all over Korea too and the Korean adaptation Gimbap also should not be missed. Even healthier:

  • Sashimi

A perfect source for protein, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients.

  • Bibimbap

This signature Korean dish concludes various of the health benefits mentioned: rice, lots of vegetables, soy sauce and fermented soybean paste. Usually topped by some meat or egg it is, like Sushi and Kimchi, one of CNN Travel readers’ favorite dishes .

  • Korean BBQ (Yakiniku)

Grilling the meat in the center of your table, this is  one of the most social ways to dine . Even though it is BBQ, since you see the raw meat before it is cooked you can see the fat – and chop it off. Add a lot of veggies and you will be good. Though, if it is not cheat day better don’t go for sangyeopsal (pork belly meat).

  • Soups like Samgaetang

A whole chicken, stuffed with rice, ginseng, jujube and other herbs. If not consumed excessively, usually you can’t do much wrong with all the awesome soups in Japan and Korea.

  • Seaweed and other sea vegetables

In Japan and Korea a lot of sea vegetables get consumed in soups, as condiments, as ingredients or as simple snacks. Their advantage lies in the minerals as they offer one of the broadest ranges of minerals of any food .

  • Side dishes

The range, especially in Korea, is big adn usually quite healthy. Just try whatever you come across. Saengchae, radish salad, or Kongnamul muchim, soybean sprout, are just two of numerous healthy side dishes offered everywhere.

  • Edamame

A bean preparation of immature soybeans. One of the tastiest and at the same time healthiest snacks/side dishes I ever had.

  • And since I mentioned cheat days already: admittedly, Japan and Korea also offer a huge range of wonderful food for these days too**.** Okonomiyaki in Japan or Chimaek (deep fried chicken and beer) in Korea – my mouth is already watering just thinking of it.

I could continue this list forever, but I think (if you are not already there), now it is time to book some tickets and get lost in the hustle and bustle of Japan and Korea.


The keyword in Japan and Korea is balance. While eating out in these exciting countries, there are tons of wonderful food options and the best thing about them is that they are usually healthy and tasty.

And even if there are some ingredients that are not 100% ideal, by adapting to the East Asian eating culture, you can easily pick up the healthier types of culinary behavior. Overall, Japanese and Korean food is a balanced mix of vegetables, protein, and grains, some oils, sauces, and fruits. Oishiidesu! Masisoyo!

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Melania Armento

Melania is a SEO specialist at Virtuagym, one of the leading innovators in the digital health and fitness industry. With 6+ years experience in marketing, she loves fitness, ranking keywords with high monthly search volume, as well as taking advantages of long summer days and warm weather.