What’s the Healthiest Country?

March 26, 2012

A Matched Set

A lot of readers send me emails asking which country I think is better, Japan or Korea? Although I encourage questions, I have to say I’m a bit annoyed at the broadness of asking for such advice. How am I supposed to know which country is best for you? I could go on and on about the differences teaching English in the two countries, and how I think one’s personality is better suited for Japan or Korea. For me, it all comes down to good health.

Asia is a healthier option for me simply because there are fewer options when it comes to food: one has to try harder to find greasy, fatty food. Not that you can’t find a genuine, all-beef American hamburger with curly fries in Busan or Tokyo. Far from it. But you have to make a point of finding it, whereas in the US, twenty are on every street corner.

It’s perfectly possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the states, but it requires restraint and moderation, two things I don’t practice well when it comes to food. After all, that triple chocolate cupcake isn’t going to eat itself, is it? The only reason I don’t weigh 200 kg right now is I’m a runner, and a fatist; I’d hate myself rather quickly if I were to get any flab. Although Korea and Japan were certainly conducive to my lifestyle, there are marked differences between the two in terms of cuisine and luxury items. Let me give you a few examples.

South Korea

Korean food is huge on carbs: noodles, dukbokki, rice… and that’s to say nothing of the plethora of bakeries around the country. Paris Baguette offers nothing but carbs with flavoring (to break it down): bread with cream, bread with sauce, sweet bread, pizza bread, regular bread, and dessert bread.

Imports, especially American ones, are more widely available in Korea than Japan. Military bases and surrounding markets cater to soldiers, meaning one can find rice crispy treats, cake mix, frosting, and salty snacks (not that Korea is lacking in their own versions).

If there’s one thing both countries have in common with the rest of the world, it’s the abundance of sugary drinks and cheap soda like Coca-Cola. Family Marts in Korea stock Coke, Pepsi, and even Dr. Pepper in some cases.


This is to say nothing of the staple dinner, Korean BBQ. Thick strips of pork with tons of fat grilled at your table. And it’s so cheap; there’s an all-you-can-eat special in Sokcho for 9,000 Won (about 8 USD). Pork is a huge part of the Korean diet.


In my opinion, Japan is the way to go in terms of healthy living. How else could there be books published like Japanese Women Don’t Get Old Or Fat (which is very true, by the way)?

The Japanese diet is varied, but very difficult to eat and get even slightly overweight. If you’re a member of a large corporation, some even have mandatory aerobic exercises in the morning and afternoon. Not everyone eats sushi, and McDonald’s still has a large presence throughout the country (as does KFC… ugh), but very few indulge in unhealthy foods and tend to stick with a diet of fish, rice, and veggies.

Part of the reason expats tend to lose weight in Japan and Korea is the change in lifestyle. Most of us are used to driving cars to and from work in our respective home countries; in Asia, we’re usually walking everywhere to catch the next bus or train. In addition, teaching is a very calorie-consuming profession, especially with kids. Jumping around the classroom and singing really drains a person, as does making little girls fly.

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