Sun Hyun-joo, Oriental medicine doctor and nutritionist
By Kelly Frances
Oriental medicine doctor and nutritionist Sun Hyun-joo says the benefits of vegetarianism are numerous, including positive physical and emotional changes as well as a reduction in the potential for disease.
As a vegan herself, who does not consume any animal products, Sun also condemns the unethical and environmentally harmful nature of the meat industry, emphasizing the heavy use of additives.
“Most people are unaware of the large amounts of antibiotics, hormones and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in animal products,” she said.
She also serves as an executive secretary of Vegedoctor, an organization of vegetarian doctors in Korea. Sun believes the perception of vegetarianism in Korea is changing.
“Ten years ago, many of my colleagues were viewed as ‘eccentric,’” she said. “Nowadays, I feel that increased awareness has led to vegetarianism being regarded as ‘smart.’”
In the wake of last year’s foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, media in Korea unintentionally created a remarkably effective advertising campaign for vegetarianism, causing a dramatic surge in traffic to vegetarian websites such as the Korean Vegetarianism Union website (www.vege.or.kr). The website’s average of 3,000 to 4,000 visitors per day jumped to 15,000 last winter.
Still, going green in a land that is world renowned for its BBQ isn’t easy, and Sun believes few accommodations are made for those who opt to go flesh-free.
“We have limited restaurant options for vegetarians,” she said. “With the exception of housewives or toddlers, most people eat out one or two times a day, and most restaurants serve meat or fish. Seasonings often include animal ingredients, so a strict vegetarian diet is tough.”
Sun also noted that standard social, school and military meals include meat or fish.
“Korean drinking culture is a prominent obstacle to vegetarians. Common get-togethers are based on alcohol, and meat or fish dishes. The association between these meals and harmony creates a challenge,” she explained.
According to Sun, the belief that vegetarianism leads to malnutrition is unfounded.
“Key nutrients suspected to be deficient in vegetarian diets are protein, calcium, iron, vitamin 12,” she explained. “However, this is a myth.” She elaborated, using calcium as an example of a “misunderstood nutrient.”
“A serving of beef contains 19 mg of calcium,” she said. “Interestingly, the same portion of sesame, kelp, sea mustard and laver contains 1,245 mg, 763 mg, 720 mg and 420 mg of calcium respectively. Additionally, the absorption rate of plant calcium is higher than that of animal food, because the excessive phosphorus found in animal food obstructs the intake of calcium. Calcium from vegetables works with the body in perfect harmony.”
Sun added that most Koreans get a healthy dose of Vitamin B12 effortlessly through foods such as soy sauce, soybean paste and seaweed.
In regard to children, Sun is eager for the findings of a current study, led by colleague Dr. Hwang Seong-soo.
“Dr. Hwang is studying the relationship between vegetarianism and learning ability at a high school in Daegu, which is the first of its kind in Korea and, though the study is in progress, we are seeing great things,” she said. “With proper education, all essential nutrients are abundant in a plant-based diet.”
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at email@example.com