Every meal also includes plenty of vegetables, most indispensably in the form of kimchi—robustly flavored, fermented vegetables. Besides providing phytonutrients and fiber, kimchi also supplies lactobacillus and other “good” bacteria that some experts think can help boost immune defenses. Usually made from cabbage and radish—vegetables in the cancer-fighting cruciferous family—kimchi is often lavishly seasoned with garlic and scallions (which, like other allium vegetables, are associated with lower cancer risks) and plenty of chile pepper, which supplies capsaicin, a compound shown to protect blood vessels and boost metabolism. That said, too much of a good thing can be harmful: heavy kimchi consumption has been linked with increased risk of stomach cancer, possibly due to the sodium and nitrates it contains.
Of course, economic prosperity—and with it, westernized tastes for fast food and soda—have all taken a toll on South Korea’s traditional eating patterns. But most South Koreans retain a fondness, and even a patriotic fervor, for local food traditions, notes Barry Popkin, Ph.D., distinguished professor of global nutrition at University of North Carolina and author of The World Is Fat (Penguin, 2008). “Traditional cooking methods like making kimchi are taught by government extension services,” he explains. “It’s part of required education before getting married.” Respect and government-sanctioned support for the old ways, he says, help make South Korea’s traditional dietary pattern “healthier than many other Asian countries of comparable economic status.” Popkin also adds, “This has changed in the last decade and South Koreans are rapidly shifting toward unhealthy food habits.”