It’s been a staple at Korean dinner tables for centuries, and the fermented veggie concoction known as kimchi is increasingly familiar to Americans.

Now, Korean researchers say a few servings of the spicy food each day might help stave off weight gain.

“Consumption of 1–3 servings/day of total kimchi was associated with a lower risk of obesity in men,” and smaller amounts were linked to similar trends among women, concluded a team led by Sangah Shin. She’s with the department of food and nutrition at Chung Ang University, in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.

However, there were a couple of downsides to eating too much kimchi, her team added.

First, the popular side dish contains a lot of salt, which is never great for health.

Secondly, beyond the one-to-three servings per day that did show a benefit, eating more kimchi was linked with obesity overall, the study found.

The research was based on data from almost 116,000 Koreans over 40 who were participating in an ongoing health study. About 79,000 were women and about 39,000 were men, and they averaged 51 years of age.

Among other factors, the study used questionnaires to track what folks ate each day, and BMI and waist measurements were also obtained.

As for “serving sizes,” that varied based on what type of kimchi (usually made from cabbage and/or radish) was eaten. For example, a serving of cabbage kimchi was thought to be just under 2 ounces, while a serving of the more watery form of cabbage kimchi was judged to be just over 3 ounces.

Overall, eating up to three servings of kimchi daily was associated with an 11% lower odds for obesity, compared to folks who ate less than one serving daily, Shin’s group found.

Results varied somewhat based on gender: Women who ate two to three servings daily saw their odds for obesity fall by 8%, the study found.

Among men, three or more servings per day of cabbage kimchi was linked with a 10% drop in their risk for obesity.

However, there did seem to be an upper limit for healthy consumption: People who ate five or more servings per day tended to weigh more, have a larger waist size and be more likely to be obese, Shin’s group found.

The findings were published Jan. 30 in the journal BMJ Open.

The researchers stressed that the study could not prove cause-and-effect, and other factors might be driving the link between kimchi intake and weight.

Still, there are reasons kimchi might have some slimming effect, they said.

Helpful bacteria found in the food, Lactobacillus brevis and L. plantarum, are known to have anti-obesity properties, according to the researchers.

They cautioned, however, that kimchi is high in salt, which is not healthy for the heart. On the other hand, high levels of potassium also found in the fermented vegetable mix might undercut harms from salt, the Korean team theorized.

“As kimchi is one of the major sources of sodium intake, a moderate amount should be recommended for the health benefits of its other components,” they concluded.

More information

Find out more about kimchi at the University of Georgia.

SOURCE: BMJ Open, news release, Jan. 30, 2024