The Skinny on Gaining Weight in Korea

Too much or too little will change you

I was asked on my Youtube channel about whether or not I had gained weight since coming to Korea.  The user mentioned noticing that some Youtubers lost weight only to gain it back when returning home.  I think this is a very good question for every foreigner coming to Korea.  Everyone is going to react to the food situation differently.

Here is their original question to me:

“I’m from California and it seems like a lot of Americans lose weight during their 1-to-2 year stay in Korea. If you yourself have lost weight, can you tell us about it? Like, is it simply because people walk instead of drive? Or is it because of the food? Curious, because the Youtubers I’ve been watching-English teachers in Korea, end up gaining weight once they get back to the States.”

Weight gain or loss happens to many English teachers when they come to Korea.  Everything in a person’s life changes when they take on this new endeavor.  Everything.  Surroundings, friends, stresses, foods…the meaning of life!

The user above mentioned exercise and food as being possible reasons and to their point, those are the two big factors in whether you’ll gain or lose weight.

Exercise:  Exercise is a definite factor in losing or gaining weight.  You will likely walk everywhere you go and the schools are generally built atop hills with heartbreaking inclines.  I stole the “heartbreak” thing from Boston if you can relate.  It’s no easy hike to get to school each day, and doing it in the summer time will bring new meaning to “breaking a sweat”.  If you are someone who doesn’t work out regularly, this will be a life changer each morning.

I was given a free scooter by a friend here, so I don’t worry about my blasted school hill anymore.  I also don’t need to worry about walking back and forth to the supermarket which is a lot of work if you buy a lot of groceries.  Carrying groceries home is a phased process with all the breaks you’ll take, but you’ll be happy to know that your grip strength will improve by leaps and bounds.  In Korea, you’ll do a lot more walking than what you’re used to.  Over time this can burn off some calories and help you to drop a few pounds.

Outdoor “workout” areas in Korea

Also, if you are someone who used to work out regularly, but you find you’re in a place with no nearby gyms or you get too lazy to go anymore you will possibly gain some weight.  In my case though, I lost a little weight during my first winter here.  I need to lift weights to keep my body weight up, but after judo practice during the thick of winter I found myself avoiding the weights so I could get home and warm up.  Judo schools generally have no A/C or heating.  I take that back, my school has a fan.  Well, in the winter it gets so cold that it’s impossible for me to get my toes warm even after a rigorous workout.  Plus, standing around too long or changing will bring a real chill (keep in mind, judo uniforms are extremely thick).  As I avoided the weights I noticed I had dropped a couple pounds.  Nothing serious, but I noticed I had.

Food:  Let’s face it, food is a big topic for most when considering coming to Korea or when you’re actually here.  Many think all Korean food is like the awesome BBQ’d bulkogi you had in LA or NYC.  Well, it’s just not.  Some of it is, but most is going to be completely foreign in smell and flavor.  Even though I grew up eating Korean food all the time, I still find myself moving some dishes to the side.  It’s just too…authentic.

For many, this is a big issue.  They just never get used to school food or restaurants in Korea and they tend to lose weight.  Others find they lose weight not because they’re eating less, but because of the difference in the quality of the general diet here.  Koreans no doubt eat more veggies and fruit and less meat compared to those in the West.  I’ve also noticed a lot less processed food here on average, though that is slowly changing.  This dietary change can help some lose weight.

It’s up to you

Conversely, the reality of living abroad hits many teachers quite harshly and they find themselves turning to food, often isolating themselves in the process.  This comfort eating will always cause weight gain.

So will drinking too much!  The topic of drinking is what it is.  If you turn to it for comfort too often you will likely gain some weight.

My advice for anyone coming to Korea is twofold.  First, commit to being brave with eating Korean food.  You don’t have to eat live octopus or dog meat, but just give most of it a shot.  Second, try to push yourself into finding a way to exercise.  Korea is very mountainous, so hiking is the easiest way to stay active and see the country.  You can also try a martial art that is hard to find back home, or simply join a gym.  Exercise is one of the best ways to rid of stress and keep you in a positive mindset.


  1. First off I'd like to say great and entertaining blog! My question may be to personal to show your audience and I respect that, if not, what is the living situation like in South Korea? Are the apartments small and are the buildings crowded? Whats outside? Is it just a big city environment all the time. Or can you go outside and go for a quiet walk? Also I don't know if you are familiar with discgolf? Are there any course in South Korea? I'll keep it short and I hope I didn't ask too many questions for you. Keep up the excellent blog Tom!

  2. NVM I found the search bar ;-).

  3. Hey no problem. Apartment vary widely since so much depends on your city and specific neighborhood. It's difficult to say collectively how they are. Mine is a small studio but new. The neighborhood is ok but I have no real complaints. I know some with better and some with worse for sure.

    As for disc golf, I don't know of any courses or leagues or anything like that.

  4. Apartments vary from small, dingy things to huge luxury apartments. They can be crowded or not.

    Ok, wait… no, that's not true. The cities are crowded. The streets are crowded. The roads are crowded. However, it's not at all like what you see from Hong Kong movies.

    Generally, the cities are more crowded than you'd be used to in North America (Except for NYC, perhaps). I'm coming up on my 12th anniversary of living in Seoul. In and around the city it is surprisingly mountainous so there are a lot of parks to walk or hike in. There are some neighborhood parks as well as large national parks right around the city. The neighborhood parks are interesting in that they are very much the backyard for the inhabitants. People will sit out all night in the summer because their apartments are so hat. They'll exercise right in the middle of the crowd. They act much more naturally than they do when the consider themselves to be in public.

    The mountain hikes are nice, but the down side is that it isn't exactly a matter of escaping the crowds when you visit these parks. They tend to be quite crowded–especially on the weekends. The mountains are not very tall in altitude, but they are quite steep. The best part is that many are accessible by subway!

    There is a disc golf league in Seoul and another in the province just outside. A colleague plays on a team in each league.

    • Hi Joe,

      Sorry for the late reply. I was in the process of changing my blog over (as you can see now). Wow, you’ve been in Seoul for 12 years?? That’s a testimony! There’s a part of me that wants to go to Seoul to teach when my contract here is over, but I’ll see how I feel as time goes on. I think the next phase would be a college or international school or something like that. Just not sure where to start at the moment.

      You’re right about the hiking crowds. It is packed! Aside of being in the mountains, it doesn’t really feel like you’re getting away. Still it’s good exercise and nice views.

      I think if someone wants to be physically active, they’ll have no problem finding hobbies here in Korea. Either familiar ones from back home, or those that are unique to Korea – which is what I would recommend.

  5. How about losing weight? I could stand to lose 10lbs. Let’s do this, Tom.

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