Monday, February 21, 2011

Korean metabolisms

I don't think anyone would disagree that Asians (that is people of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Southeast Asian descent) are smaller than Caucasians. And I don't mean smaller just in height. Koreans have a significantly lower average BMI (only about 3% of their population has a BMI over 30) than Americans (perhaps not a fair comparison since 60% of the U.S.'s population is overweight). Before coming to Korea I was curious if Koreans just have insanely high metabolisms, they eat healthier, or people simply exercise more. Now, approaching the 6 month mark in Korea, I would say that all of these hypotheses are at least partially true.

1. Korean Metabolisms

Now any of you who know me well should know that I love eating. A lot. Lucky for me, my mom fed me healthy food so with the exception of my dangerous sweet tooth I really only eat large amounts of healthy food. Probably still not a good habit, but oh well. I refuse to count a calorie (and given the ridiculous amount of running I'm doing at the moment I think it's also unnecessary). So with  my large appetite I am used to "normal" American girls judging my eating habits. I expected this judgement to continue in Korea, especially since I am significantly larger than most of the female teachers at my school. But these teachers can chow down!!! During school lunch, we go through the line and serve ourselves and EVERYONE keeps piling the food on! Even I was shocked! Yet these women are TINY! I've never felt fat but when I'm around them sometimes I do. Here I am eating the same amount as them (if not less) and they are half my size. Conclusion: Koreans have insanely high metabolisms.

2. Korean food

So as I've mentioned in previous e-mails Korean food is delicious and for the most part extremely healthy. Nothing is fried, they eat an excessive amount of fermented foods, and there's tons of variety. Naturally, their stereotype of Americans is that we just eat spaghetti, pizza, steak and hamburgers, foods that I either never or rarely eat. Korean food is a great source of national pride so the fact that I LOVE Korean food ensured my almost immediate acceptance amongst the teachers at my school. But before we jump to conclusions about the healthiness of Korean food let me tell you the flip side. Korea has an astronomical number of American food chains. The only other country I've been to that has more American chains was Mexico which makes sense given our proximity and economic ties to Mexico. Korea is on the other side of the world yet Starbucks, McDonalds, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays, Bennigans, Baskin Robbins, Coldstone!!, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, Dominos and more...  and all can be easily found in any large Korean city. So with the abundance of American chains what is my prediction? Koreans are going to get fat. I've already noticed the beginnings of this event. Unlike their parents, far too many of my students are overweight. And not just that pudgy baby fat but legitimately overweight. So watch out Korea! Don't love everything American too much or you will begin to acquire some of our less desirable traits (namely obesity) as well.

3. Exercise

Like many things in Korea there are two sides to exercise: the older generation, and the younger generation. A few times per week I meet my friend at 6 am to go running before school. We run in this tiny (and now EXTREMELY boring) park near our apartments. Many of you are probably thinking I'm crazy to go running at 6 am in the dead of winter. I agree. It is crazy. But what's even crazier are the amount of people also in the park exercising at 6 am in -10 degree C weather. There is a group of ajumas (Korean for old lady) doing some kind of aerobics workout with their music blaring, there are ajushis (Korean old men) and ajumas out for a brisk walk, and there are ajumas and ajushis utilizing the exercise equipment that every park in Korea comes equipped with. These common sights in Korea are extremely uncommon in the U.S. (or at least the Midwest, perhaps it's more common in a state like Colorado) even in broad daylight. In addition to exercise Korean lifestyle demands some kind of basic fitness. Walking to and from the subway, and climbing the millions of flights of stairs in the subway and then of course hiking. Hiking is another Korean national sport (at least amongst the older generation). And this leads me to the difference between the younger generation and the older generation. While finding older Koreans exercising and hiking up cliffs/mountains is a regular sight, I almost never see anyone my age exercising. Koreans want to be thin (it's EXTREMELY important more so even then the States) but don't want to go through the effort of exercising, particularly women (so basically the same as Americans). The younger teachers at my school are shocked and impressed by my "diligence" of running everyday and at Korean road races there are almost no women! Good for me because it means I have less competition and a better chance at winning the awesome prices that they give out. But really there is an absolutely startling lack of women runners. Instead of exercise, the common buzz word I hear among the younger generation is "diet". Ah diets! I wish that word would be banned from all languages. It sucks the joy out of life. So even though I am practically twice the size of some of the Koreans I know, I will continue to enjoy large amounts of healthy Korean food, and continue to run and be active and I won't be caught dead on a diet.

So why are Koreans thin? Because they have crazy fast metabolisms, SOME of them eat healthy, SOME of them incorporate exercise into their daily routine, and unfortunately some go on fad diets and don't eat much at all. But watch out Korea! With the overabundance of American chains and the excessive amount of studying that Korean students do, I think Korea will soon be catching up to the U.S. in obesity (but perhaps not TOO soon). One thing I do know is that you won't find this waygook (foreigner) in American chains (besides Baskin Robbins), I'll eat my kimchi please.

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