Chapter 11: A Cultural Example – Korea

How has the high meat, low grain and low vegetable diet affected cultures? Let us look at the Koreans. Before the Korean War, Korea was passionate about winning marathons. Its athletes practiced a lot and therefore, excelled in the event.

In the 1936 Olympics, Sohn Kee Chung became the first Korean to ever win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon; he did so in record time. Who carried home the bronze medal? Nam Sung Yong, his Korean teammate. In the 1947 Boston Marathon, Korean Yun Bok Suh won in a record time of 2:25:39. In the 1950 Boston Marathon, Koreans Kee Yong Ham, Gil Yoon Song, and Yun Chil Choi placed first, second, and third. This was a Korean “Grand Slam!” Korea would not celebrate another win in the Boston Marathon until 2001, when Lee Bongju took first place with a time of 2:09:42.

Why the long lag between medals? A main factor was the Korean War (1950-1953), which led to dietary changes in Korea. Koreans went from a largely whole grain and vegetable diet to one of mainly meat. How did this happen?

The Korean War was devastating for all involved. The number of casualties is merely a guess, but South Korea lost as many as 1.2 million people, both soldiers and civilians. The United States lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 54,000 soldiers, with 103,000 being wounded.1

After the war, the United States provided aid to South Korea. Some of this aid was in the form of food. Please don’t get me wrong. Like many South Koreans, I am eternally grateful to the United States for its help, and to all of the Americans who gave their lives for our sake. Without the assistance of the United States, South Korea may not have survived the war. I love living in America and love the people here. I myself have been an American citizen for about 30 years. Although lifesaving, the food that was supplied to South Korea was not food that the citizens would typically eat. It was food based on an American diet and the C-Rations the U.S. soldiers ate were high in protein. This meant that the Korean rations also contained a lot of meat.

The problem was that South Koreans’ bodies were used to whole grains and vegetables. This traces back many years. The last Korean dynasty was the Chosun Dynasty, and it existed for 500 years prior to the war. This dynasty’s diet centered around vegetables and whole grains. Trade with outside nations was prohibited, and as a result, the people were healthy due to the hard work they put into farming and making a living. Prior to the Korean War, South Koreans were rarely overweight. Unfortunately, the American diet was very high in protein and fat. Because of this, some of the South Koreans became obese.

In addition, these rations were susceptible to bacteria. During World War II, the c-ration technology was not well developed. Because there was an immediate need for food, there was not time to complete scientific studies as to the packaging. As a result, the food was put into cans, and, unbeknownst to all, the food would spoil within the can. Bacteria, a tasteless poison, could grow in the container without the soldiers knowing it. The rations could become deadly. Their consumption caused diarrhea, stomach problems, and in extreme cases, death. There was no difference in how c-rations from WWII were produced from how they were made during the Korean War. Those, too, were susceptible to bacteria.

During WWII, scientists from Germany and Japan began doing autopsies on soldiers who had, at some point, eaten the rations. Although the soldiers had died from gunshot wounds or bombs, scientists discovered that their internal organs showed various types of damage. They hypothesized this to be the result of a very poor diet.2

Similar studies were done during the Korean War. Autopsies of American soldiers revealed ailments such as arthritis. The one thing all of the soldiers had in common was the consumption of c-rations. The doctors questioned whether the breakdown of the body’s organs was caused or aided by the high meat content in the rations. Remember, high amounts of animal products lead to acidic blood material.

Before the U.S. sent Korea food, meat was a delicacy. It was very expensive, and was usually reserved for the King and his officials. To have meat was a dream! The only meat a typical poor South Korean family had access to was that of an old, worn out farm cow they owned. To kill a healthy cow for food would mean that no crops could be harvested and the family would lose its income. And so, peoples’ diets consisted mainly of multigrain and vegetables. As a result of this diet and an active lifestyle, these people were healthy and thin.

In contrast, the people who did eat a lot of animal products, like the King and his court, were fatter. This was attributed to the high amount of fat in their diet, which came from meat. This led to diseases, such as diabetes. In fact, the people called diabetes “the king’s disease.” When the king would urinate on the ground, the ants would rush to it because it tasted sweet. Ultimately, this lifestyle lead to early deaths among royalty.

Overall, what this meant for the South Koreans was that, when they moved away from a whole grain diet, they had higher instances of strokes and early deaths. It is possible, even probable, that their new diets also contributed to mental health issues. Overall, the Koreans’ bodies became bigger, both in height and overall size, due to heavy meat consumption. Their sizes became similar to those of Americans.

What impact did this have on Korean athletes? Because they were bigger and heavier, they tired easily. They could not run like they did in the past. Their bodies simply would not allow it. Their hearts were out of shape and they slowed down.

However, years later, things changed for Korean marathoners. In 1990, there was an athletic director named Jeong Bongsoo, who was in charge of preparing the Korean marathon runners for the Olympics. Director Jeong asked himself, why are we losing? What did the older generation do to win that we are not doing? He questioned the living athletes from all of the past competitions. From this, he found that they had eaten smaller amounts of food and exercised to the extent that they burned off the energy from the meals. He concluded that if his athletes had full stomachs, they would be unable to run extended distances.

One day, he saw a sparrow. As he watched, it flew around, ate a small amount of seeds, then flew around some more. This small portion of food gave it sustained energy. When the energy ran out, it ate again. This made him realize how a whole grain diet affected the prior generation’s ability to win marathons. So, he changed his runners’ diets to whole grains and vegetables. Meat was also included in their diets, but in limited quantities. What happened? His athletes began to win. In fact, they won numerous events and earned many medals from 1992 to 2001.

Our bodies need carbohydrates, fat, and protein in order to survive. Carbohydrates give us energy, then fat is burned for energy when we run out of them. Protein is used to build and maintain muscle. The United States has come up with a Recommended Daily Allowance (“R.D.A.”) for each of the above. The RDA guideline tells us how much of each we should eat daily to be healthy, along with what amounts and types of food we should eat. For example, we should have a certain amount of calories from protein. In order to reach this, we should eat specific servings of dairy, fish, meat, and beans each day. We have an R.D.A., but I submit that it differs for each person. The R.D.A. of carbohydrates will be different if you are a marathoner versus if you are a bodybuilder. Let us look at marathoners.

Carbohydrates from the right sources provide sustained energy and increase our endurance. They supply energy to our muscles in the form of glucose. They allow us to walk, move our limbs and trunks, think, and to generally function every day. If a person is only moderately active, his or her energy needs are not great. If he or she is going to run a 26.2 mile marathon, eating like this will not give her nearly enough energy for finishing the race. The energy needs of a marathoner are greater than the energy needs of an average person.

Jeong Bongsoo learned that his runners would have to eat a lot of carbohydrates in the days leading up to the race, in order to have enough energy to complete it. The extra carbohydrates the athletes ate in preparation for the race were stored as glycogen. As they ran, their bodies tapped into the glycogen reserves so that they had enough energy to finish the race. Now remember, his athletes burned off some of these calories during training, but most of the glycogen stores were used in the marathon itself. That is why they did not get fat. He knew that if people ate too much food without burning off the calories, they get fat. To avoid this, we must put an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains. In smaller portions, they are more filling than junk food. But, most importantly, the energy we receive from them is sustained energy. When digested, these foods are not quickly converted to glycogen if the energy is not used.

Our liver stores between 100-150 grams of glycogen, and our muscles hold between 200-250 grams. This totals to 300-400 grams of glycogen that our body’s cells can store. Our blood holds 15 grams of glucose, which is used for energy. We need carbohydrates before we run for endurance, as well as afterward, in order to maintain energy.

When we walk, glycogen is converted into glucose, which is used for energy. When we exercise, however, the glucose and glycogen is burned off fairly quickly. Thus, fat and carbohydrates are used. In order to burn off flab and fat, we have to do strenuous exercises (e.g. play tennis, run, workout with weights, etc.).

Everybody, including bodybuilders, speed skaters, wrestlers, officer workers, and everybody else, needs a balanced diet. As you have previously read, eating a diet primarily made up of meat is not good for you. Meat does not give you sustained energy. Even a marathoner, who must consume a lot of carbohydrates to run, needs some meat. Why is this? Protein stops the marathoner from losing muscle mass. Without good leg muscles, he cannot run. What am I saying? I am saying that we need to eat a balanced portion of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and all from healthy sources.

The sparrow eats a balanced meal. Like I have previously pointed out, it eats whole grains for energy, and insects and worms for fat and protein. Then, it flies around and burns off the energy. We, as humans, also need this balance of food and exercise.

Unbalanced eating, even if you are eating healthy food, can have ill effects. For example, Eskimos eat a lot of fish. In moderation, fish is good. The blood in fish actually helps our own blood. Compare it to cow’s blood. If you have a cup of cow’s blood sitting in a bowl at room temperature, it becomes somewhat solid. Now, if you have a cup of fish blood at room temperature, it is liquid and moves easily around in the cup. When digested, the liquid enters our bloodstream. If we have a diet rich in beef, our blood vessels, eventually, may become blocked due to the high fat content. When we consume fish, our blood flows much more easily.

Doesn’t this imply that it is healthy to eat fish? Yes, but, again, only in moderation. Eating a diet of only fish is bad for you. If you have a diet high in fish, your blood will become too thin. If you get cut, it will take longer for you to stop bleeding. The moral of the story is that too much or too little of anything is not healthy.

The Korean Olympic gold medal winners and Boston Marathon winners know about balanced diets. Before a marathon, they eat a carefully planned diet. For the first three days, they eat steamed or barbecued (never fried) lean meat. They may also eat hard-boiled eggs, which contain fat and protein. At this point, no vegetables or rice are eaten. This part of the diet develops muscle. In the last three days before a marathon, athletes do not eat any meat, only vegetables, seaweed, nuts, and whole grains. On the final day before the race, they eat large amounts of seaweed, brown rice, and drink fresh water. This method of eating has produced many Korean champions.

Another example of why we need to eat the proper balance and quantities of food comes from Korean research conducted in 2012 on Koreans who were 100 years old or older. The goal was to find out what the subjects attributed their long lives to. What was their secret to long life? The research revealed that the vast majority of these people had stopped drinking alcohol around the time they turned 60 years old. They drank only at social functions such as weddings

So, why did they stop? It was partially because alcohol just didn’t taste the same as when they were younger. It had stopped tasting “good.” More importantly, they stopped for two reasons: their body composition had changed and the alcohol itself changed.

Here is the explanation for this. As we age, our livers become smaller and weaker. Alcohol is processed by the liver, therefore, older people are unable to process alcohol as efficiently as they used to. By limiting their alcohol intake around the age of sixty, these people spared their bodies the ill effects of too much alcohol. Additionally, they were unable to adapt to certain chemicals in the alcohol. As time has progressed, alcohol has become harder to digest because of these chemicals. Look at beer, which is made from grain grown in a field. To ward off bugs and diseases, farmers spray the grains with chemicals. The grains are then picked and used in the manufacturing process, and these chemicals make their way all the way into the final product and into our digestive tracks. Younger people do not notice the effects because their bodies have become used to pesticides, chemicals, and hormones. This older generation, however, could not handle such an unhealthy dose of chemicals.

Alcohol of old had good microorganisms in it. Single or multiple celled organisms live within our bodies. They can be germs, viruses, or bacteria. If good microorganisms enter our bodies, then our bodies will become healthier. The opposite is true for bad microorganisms. Because they live in our intestines, when they are healthy, they promote good bowel movements. When healthy microorganisms live in our stomachs, we have good digestion. If we have bad microorganisms in our bodies, we can become constipated, or can get diarrhea. Scientists found that microorganisms in our intestines can make us fat or skinny, depending upon whether they are good or bad. Besides the newer chemicals, test subjects had stopped drinking alcohol because modern drinks lack these healthy microorganisms.

What are some other sources of good microorganisms? Yogurt, fermented wine, and vinegar, particularly balsamic vinegar. Foods or drinks that come from fermented ingredients contain a healthy amount of microorganisms. They get into these foods due to the fermentation process. For example, yogurt is fermented milk. Sour kraut is fermented cabbage, as is kimchee. Microorganisms grow and multiply in these foods.

If you eat properly, you do not need to follow a calculated calorie system. Your body will tell you when it is hungry and when it is not. It becomes hungry when you expend energy. Look at a sparrow. It is not on a calorie system, yet, it is lean and healthy. It eats only when it is hungry.

Grandmaster Jang: Symbolizing speed, flexibility, and power: this technique entails 3 sidekicks and 1 roundhouse kick against 4 opponents. Gahanna, OH, 1999
Grandmaster Jang: Symbolizing speed, flexibility, and power: this technique entails 3 sidekicks and 1 roundhouse kick against 4 opponents. Gahanna, OH, 1999
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated on above, Gahanna, OH, 2007
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated on above, Gahanna, OH, 2007
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated above, Gahanna, OH, 2007
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated above, Gahanna, OH, 2007
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated on above, Gahanna, OH, 2007
Grandmaster Jang: These photos depict the same technique illustrated on above, Gahanna, OH, 2007

  1. Learn more about the Korean war at the Korean War Project website.

  2. See The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia – Rations. “The most common deficiency diseases among inadequately fed troops were scurvy (due to lack of vitamin C), beriberi (due to lack of thiamine), pellagra (due to lack of niacin), and night blindness (due to lack of vitamin A).” Such health concerns could have been prevented by giving troops whole grains, but the traditional Japanese diet consists of white rice. The Army was aware that this could be prevented by mixing rice with barley, but the mixture was disliked by the soldiers and was considered too difficult to transport. As a result, the troops’ diet was so deficient in thiamine and other vitamins that Japanese soldiers often developed these diseases.

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