A Weighty Matter: Are Koreans Really Getting too Fat?

Gugak Center
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is advising people to eat sparingly during vacation feasts. The worry is that Koreans are becoming too obese. Is it really that big of a problem?

Korea, it seems, is in the midst of an ‘obesity epidemic.’

That’s according to the National Health Insurance Service, which announced last year that it was setting up a national task force to deal with the 1 in 3 Korean adults diagnosed as obese. Korean children are also a problem: In a June report, the OECD noted that 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls were overweight, prompting much hand-wringing about their diets and lack of exercise. Ahead of Chuseok, traditionally a time of feasting, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety advised everyone to eat sparingly over the upcoming vacation, suggesting portion sizes smaller than most restaurants’ course meals.

For expats and Koreans alike, it’s difficult to take such alarmism seriously. Not only do most Koreans appear as thin as ever, but statistics back this up: According to the above OECD report, Korean adults still had the fifth lowest rate of the 40 countries surveyed. What’s more, Korean society places strict standards on women’s body weights in particular, to the extent that Korea is the only country in the OECD where women ages 20-39 are actually getting thinner, rather than more obese. According to a 2010 study by Y.H. Khang and S.C. Yun, based on four Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys that gathered data from 22,995 men and women aged 20 and over, the percentages of underweight Korean women rose from 8.2% in 1998 to 13.2% in 2007. Things will have only gotten worse since: In July last year, it was reported that 2 in 5 Korean women ages 19-25 were underweight.

What’s going on? Are Koreans getting fatter, thinner, or not really changing at all? Why the conflicting data and headlines?

Korea hamburger

Much of the confusion is because news sources rarely give sufficient attention to researchers’ methods, with most web-based ones failing to even link to the original studies. In such an information vacuum, it’s easy for both writers and readers to exaggerate change, and to cherry-pick the real or perceived social ills responsible. For example, numerous reports single out eating more Western-style fast food as the culprit, adding to a long list of the evils of Westernization. But few of those same reports will also mention Koreans’ appetite for salty, greasy instant noodles, now the highest per capita in the world.

Discerning readers however, will already have noticed that it’s actually three separate groups – children, young women and adults – that have been mentioned so far. Therein lays the solution to the contradiction: obesity rates tend to vary widely by age, sex and income. To summarize the first two variables, Korean men are most obese in their 30s, decreasing as they get older; the opposite trend is true for women, who are most obese in their 60s. The difference, according to experts spoken to by Veronica Huh of Korea Bizwire, is that men “are highly likely to gain weight since they start to work full time and have a lot of social gatherings, while women are prone to gain fat when they grow older as they have less muscle mass compared with men.”

Much of the confusion is because news sources rarely give sufficient attention to researchers’ methods, with most web-based ones failing to even link to the original studies. In such an information vacuum, it’s easy for both writers and readers to exaggerate change.

Compounding women’s problems, as pointed out by Researcher Kim Yoon-ah (via Claire Lee of The Korea Herald), is that the elderly frequently have very different notions of appropriate body weight and health to those of younger generations (i.e., not acknowledging their obesity), a perception problem that will only loom larger as Korea’s population rapidly ages.

Children’s obesity rates, in contrast, are less of an issue. Despite appearances, the figures for boys and girls provided earlier (25% and 20% respectively) are in fact only just above and below the OECD averages (23% and 21%). That said, there is still ample scope to improve their lifestyle habits. According to an October report by the state-run Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, significant numbers of children are skipping breakfast, regularly eating fast foods and drinking sodas, and 4 in 5 get less than five hours of exercise a week. Partially, this is schools’ fault: according to the Korea Educational Development Institute, Korean middle school students only have access to a third of the exercise space that Japanese students do.

As for differences in income, 34.3% of the poorest quarter of the population was obese last year according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, against 29.5% of the wealthiest quarter. Echoing findings in other countries, contributing factors include the poor – especially poor women – being more likely to do shift work and/or multiple part-time jobs, making it difficult to find the time to exercise and cook nutritious meals; also, obese adults tend to have been obese children, who endure more teasing, have lower self-esteem and ultimately do much more poorly in school and the workplace. They also tend to live in areas poorly served by gyms, health-education programs and stores with a wide variety of cheap, nutritious foods. In Korea, this translates to a rural/urban obesity divide, too (37.6% and 31.5% of all residents respectively), partially because the proportion of elderly women is higher in the countryside.

In contrast, young Korean women’s extremely low obesity rates are overwhelmingly due to appearance-based issues, rather than economic reasons.

Like many social issues, then, there is no catch-all obesity rate for the Korean public, nor any single cause responsible or magic bullet to solve it. It is disingenuous of journalists and policymakers to suggest otherwise, and you should treat any that do with the appropriate skepticism. Instead, the way forward is to suggest specific, concrete steps aimed at solving specific problems with specific groups – quite literally, in the case of children, for instance, in the form of building more school gyms. Granted, that would be more effective if the students didn’t have chronically low levels of sleep, another huge factor curiously absent from media reports on Korean child obesity. But until that wider problem is solved? It’s as good a start as any.