Is Korean BBQ Keto Friendly? (How To Eat Keto At Korean BBQ)
Korean BBQ is one of the most popular foods all throughout the world. With its unique marinades and side dishes, it’s an experience that is both exciting and delicious. Although Korean BBQ is delicious, is it Keto friendly as many would suggest?
Many of the dishes you can find in Korean BBQ such as Galbi, Bulgogi, or Tteokgalbi are seasoned with large amounts of sugar which will quickly add up in carbs. In order to eat within a Keto diet at a Korean BBQ restaurant, you must stick to eating meats that are not marinated which will ensure that there is no sugar within the meat.
Korean BBQ is actually a great source of Keto foods, you just need to know the nutrition facts of the meats that Korean BBQ has to offer. Here are the 5 steps you need to take in order to stay healthy while eating Korean BBQ and to stick to your Keto diet.
These are the 5 steps needed to eat a healthy Korean BBQ meal and to stick to you Keto diet:
Understand What Goes Inside Your Favorite Choices of Meat
Understand The Calorie Range & Macronutrient Ratios of The Foods You Eat
Avoid High Carb Side Dishes
Avoid The AYCE (All You Can Eat) Restaurants
Eat Your Greens & Avoid The Rice
Now that we know about the 5 tips to safely eat some Korean BBQ, let’s get into the details on how you can still enjoy a great meal while staying within your comfort range.
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Step 1: Understand What Goes Inside Your Favorite Choices of Meat
There are many choices of meat that you can get from many Korean BBQ restaurants. The thing about the meats in Korean cuisine is that they are marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and sugar.
Korean chefs specialize in adding a ton of sweet and savory flavors into meats which pairs very nicely with cuts such as short rib, ribeye, brisket and pork belly. However, if you are someone who is looking to stick within the range of a typical Keto diet, then this might be an issue for you.
Marinades add calories to your meats which means it adds the macronutrients it consists of. For example, if you add oil or sugar to your marinade you are adding fats and carbs into your meat. For every gram of oil you can add 7-9 calories coming from fat. For every gram of carb, however, you can add 3-4 calories.
Let’s take a typical ribeye for example. There are no carbs in ribeye so you can expect to fit that into your Keto diet safely. However, if you add a sugar, soy sauce, and garlic mixture to the mix then your ribeye will now have a fraction of the carbs you get from the sugar.
This is the case for most meats at Korean BBQ restaurants and, since most Korean chefs don’t account for Keto, you will most likely be getting carbs from your meats. The tip here is to simply get the options that have no carbs and are not flavored with any marinade or seasoning.
You can definitely tell which ones are marinated and which ones aren’t marinated. This, however, takes some sacrifice because it will definitely exclude your favorite options such as galbi, bulgogi, and, sometimes, even your pork belly. Let’s take a look at the next section where we dive into the cuts with and without carbs.
Step 2: Understand The Calorie Range & Macronutrient Ratios of The Foods You Eat
Let’s take a look at the options you can find at typical Korean restaurants. Let’s start with the ones with carbs so you can get a good look at what to avoid.
Contains Carbs (Sugar)
Galbi is probably the staple beef dish in Korea. It’s a delicious cut of short rib that is marinated in a brown sugar and soy sauce mixture. A lot of recipes include Mirin as well which is a Japanese rice wine that also contains a little bit of sugar as well.
Although this is a delicious cut of beef there is a ton of calories that come from the brown sugar present in the marinade. There is usually an entire cup that goes into the mix so you can expect a lot of sweetness when eating Galbi.
Let's take a look at the nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Galbi dish. For every 16 grams of fat, there are 24 grams of carbs and 34 grams of protein. You can definitely see that eating a single 4 oz. serving can give you 24 grams of carbs which will put you over your carb limit without a doubt.
If you’re expecting to stay within your range while eating Galbi, the sad truth is you’ll most likely stop being Keto after this meal. Galbi usually comes in way higher servings than 4 ounces so you can expect to probably eat 4-8 ounces in a single trip to your favorite Koren BBQ joint.
Our tip if you want to eat Galbi is to find a Keto recipe online and just make it within the safety of your own home. There are different substitutes for sugar which will, somewhat, lessen the flavor but, hey, it’s something.
Bulgogi is another staple dish in Korea and is probably eaten more than any meat out there. Bulgogi is usually a cut or ribeye that is sliced into thin pieces so it can lay over a bed of rice or in a stir fry of different veggies such as onions and bell peppers.
The thing about bulgogi, however, is that it also contains brown sugar and mirin which both add a tremendous flavor while adding a lot of carbs coming from sugar. You probably won’t be getting a keto friendly meal if bulgogi is involved so, one again, making a keto friendly version of this meal will be your best bet.
Let’s take a look at the nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Bulgogi dish. For every 21 grams of fat, there are 12 grams of carbs and 25 grams of protein. Just like before, Bulgogi has a ton of carbs coming from sugar. In fact, there is a 1:2 ratio of carbs and protein so this is far from being a keto friendly meal.
There are other ways you can cook up a nice ribeye without adding sugar so, although this dish is delicious, it’s not going to fit within the range that you will need it to. Our tip here is to focus on the upcoming dishes and make sure to severely limit the amount of bulgogi and galbi you eat.
Does Not Contain Carbs (Sugar)
Skirt is generally a leaner cut of beef and usually comes in the form of the “lean meat” option that some Korean BBQ restaurants offer. If you’re eating with someone who’s deep into Korean culture, you’ll always find them saying never to order this but, if you’re also someone dedicated to staying keto, you’ll have to be strong and insist.
Let’s take a look at the nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Skirt Steak or “Lean Meat” dish.
For every 10 grams of fat, there are 0 grams of carbs and 22 grams of protein. Not bad at all for what you can get at a Korean BBQ joint. The thing here is the “lean meat” option still comes with around 10 grams of fat per serving so it isn’t that lean at all.
Just be mindful of how much fat you are getting as this can be a macronutrient that can add up as well. Even if you’re on a keto diet, overdoing the fats is not going to be a great option for both your health and weight goals. Keep track of the fats and you’ll be good to go.
Sirloin is actually my favorite cut of beef and, when you find this at a Korean BBQ restaurant, you’ll usually just find it raw and served on its own. It’s not overly fatty like brisket or ribeye, in my opinion, and usually comes with a layer of fat around the steak. It’s great if you want to lower your fats and stick to your Keto diet.
The great part about this cut is that it’s fine to eat with a little bit of salt and sesame oil. It’s also great when wrapped in a piece of lettuce with some garlic and chili paste. You can definitely eat less fats this way as so much of your meal will come from healthy greens as well. But, we’ll get into that later.
Let’s take a look at a typical cut of Sirloin and see what goes inside this cut of beef. For every 12 grams of fat, there are 0 grams of carbs and 23 grams of protein. Not bad at all considering how filling this cut is. You can find a ton of flavor in here without adding too much fat to your meal.
12 grams, however, is still pretty high so just be mindful of your fats once again to stay within a healthy range.
If you’ve been to a Korean BBQ restaurant that serves good beef tongue then you know how delicious this cut of beef is. It’s a lot chewier than the other cuts of beef which, in my opinion, adds such a great textural break to all the tenderness you can find.
Beef tongue, however, is filled with fats which is fine because they usually serve smaller portions of this cut anyway. A few bites of this and you’ll definitely feel satisfied as the fats are even higher than the protein.
Let’s take a look at the nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Beef Tongue dish. For every 4.5 grams of fat, there are 0 grams of carbs and 4 grams of protein. This is pretty bad for dieting if you were to eat a lot of it so make sure you limit yourself to a couple pieces.
The trick with finding healthy foods is to see the ratios of macronutrients within the nutrition facts. You generally want your fats to be lower as they are the highest macronutrient out of the three (1 gram is 9 kcals for fats). So, when you find a food that has higher fat than protein, you’ll know that this food isn’t the best to eat when staying fit.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t eat your favorite cuts like beef tongue. You should just eat it in moderation and focus on the higher protein meals.
Pork Belly (Sangyeopsal)
The crowd favorite amongnst all Korean BBQ options definitely has to be Pork Belly. It’s definitely the fattiest cut of meat out of all the dishes you can find and is basically a huge slab of bacon grilled to crispy bits of rendered fats.
It offers a deep and complex flavor profile especially when paired with a dipping sauce of sesame oil and salt. Taking a look at its nutrition facts, however, can open your eyes to how bad it is for you unfortunately. It’s fat content is extremely high while its protein is extremely lacking.
Let’s take a look at its nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Pork Belly dish. For a typical Pork Belly or Samgyeopsal dish, there are 15 grams of fat for every 0 grams of carbs and 3 grams of protein.
You can see that there is a huge imbalance of proteins and fats as there is 5 times the amount of fat than there is protein. Once again the fats are higher than protein which means that there is an extremely high potential to eat more grams of fat than protein.
You always want your protein to be higher than fats as protein is the best macronutrient at keeping us lean and building muscle. It satiates us and is the driver of all the functions of our body.
Our tip here is to just enjoy a couple slices of Sangyeopsal while focusing on the leaner cuts of meat like chicken or sirloin. This is asking a lot to order chicken at a Korean BBQ restaurant but some protein will definitely add some much needed balance.
Your fats are higher if you’re eating Keto but, 15 grams of fat per 3 grams of protein is definitely going to put you over your fats. Fat is the least satiating macronutrient as well so pairing this cut with a lettuce wrap will help fill you up while avoiding eating too much.
Brisket (Chadol Baegi)
Brisket is the first thing that Korean restaurants will cook for you when you are first seated. This is because it’s the fastest to cook and oils up the pan for the other meats to cook faster.
This is actually one of the best things you can eat when you go to a Korean BBQ restaurant as its fats are low and protein is high compared to the other meats in this section. It can be a big ask to eat more brisket as the pork belly and beef tongue are available as well but it would be beneficial to focus on this cut more.
Let’s take a look at its nutrition facts and see what goes inside a typical Brisket dish. For every 1.5 grams of fat, there are 0 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein. This is great since the protein is much higher than the fats and goes higher than a 3:1 ratio.
This is the balance that you are looking for when eating a healthy diet so brisket is a great option the next time you’re out at your favorite Korean BBQ joint. I get that the flavor of brisket can get stale but it’s definitely going to help you stay lean if you’re mindful of your looks.
Our tip here is to simply eat more brisket and fill your stomach up with it before indulging in the other tempting cuts of beef. You’ll leave feeling a lot less stuffed and you’ll be getting a lot more protein in than you usually would.
Those are generally all the cuts of beef you can expect to find at your local Korean BBQ joint. Some are marinated in sugar so make sure you look out for those the next time you’re mindful of your Keto goals.
Let’s take a look at our other steps that pertain to keeping within your Keto range which will also help you stay lean and mean.
Step 3: Avoid High Carb Side Dishes (Banchan)
Banchan is a Korean word used to describe the complimentary side dishes that come with most Korean meals. There’s a lot of great options here that are designed to compliment your meals with different textures and flavors which is a pretty awesome feature of Korean food.
Although Banchan is usually healthy and comes with a lot of green and fibrous veggies, there are some that can actually add some carbs into your meals. These items come in the form of potato salad, apples marinated in mayo, Japchae (Korean Glass Noodles), Oden (Korean Fish Cakes), and rice jelly.
All of the options mentioned above are foods that definitely have a lot of carbs which can really get in the way of staying Keto. It’s really tempting to eat them as they are free and add so much flavor to the meats available.
Our tip here is to just focus on the greens and use your common sense to see which ones are probably higher in carbs. There are many delicious options to choose from that won’t add too many carbs such as Kimchi, bean sprouts, sesame oil broccoli, and marinated mushrooms.
These are usually veggies that are very fibrous which means that the carbs you get from them are very limited. They will both fill you up and save you on overeating the carbs while adding some awesome acidity to your meats.
Just avoid the high carb options and you’ll be good to go. There’s a bit of a sacrifice there but it’ll definitely be worth it when you get to see your awesome results.
Step 4: Avoid The AYCE (All You Can Eat) Restaurants
All You Can Eat Restaurants are everywhere but I’m actually not a huge fan of them since they don’t serve the best quality meats. The reason this step is here is because All You Can Eat Restaurants offer a high potential to overeat as we definitely feel the need to eat for our money’s worth. Or, at least that’s how I feel.
There’s definitely a time and place for AYCE restaurants but, overall, I prefer to stick to the places where I can order plate by plate as the quality is higher and I get to practice control and restraint.
AYCE restaurants actually strive when you order lots of meats because it allows them to drop the quality of the meats and serve the leftovers that they haven’t used the day or days before. I’ve had many friends who have worked at Korean BBQ restaurants and they can vouch that this is true.
I, personally, care very much about the quality of my meat and, if that means paying the premium, I’m totally fine with doing so. I’d rather eat high quality meats that are limited than eat a ton of low quality meat that is left over from the days where it didn’t sell.
AYCE is going to definitely put your over your calorie limit which means you’ll be gaining weight and gaining fat.
Remember, Korean BBQ has a ton of fat and even the leanest cuts are within the fatty range as well. This means that ordering AYCE will most likely get you overeating on the fats which can cause many complications in health if you’re not careful.
If you live in Southern California, then here is an article you can check out with all the plate by plate restaurants I recommend. I’ve only listed the places I’ve been to but they’re definitely the ones that have the best quality meat and will help you restrain yourself from going all out.
Just make sure that you control yourself when you eat Korean BBQ and eat it in moderation. It’s such a delicious part of Korean cuisine but some responsibility is required if you want to stay healthy!
Step 5: Eat Your Greens & Avoid The Rice
This step can be a little obvious but I’m writing it to encourage you to stick with this step. It can be so tempting to order the rice as there is really no better combination than Korean BBQ meats with a warm bowl or white rice.
There is an alternative to rice, however, which we should be eating everytime we go to a Korean BBQ joint. I’ve mentioned it above in section 2 of this article many times but it has to be the lettuce wrap that is available on the table.
Koreans actually eat most of their bites with the lettuce wrap (which is referred to and called “ssam”) as it really offers a ton of flavor when mixed with the sesame oil solution, garlic, kimchi, and chili paste. As a Korean American I’ve eaten Korean BBQ all my life and have focused on ssam even before I became a certified Diet Coach.
Looking at the flavor aspect alone, there is something special about wrapping everything in lettuce and eating it as a sort of makeshift, carb-free dumpling. It offers a refreshing bite that cuts through all the fat of the beef and pork which, in my opinion, is much needed when eating Korean BBQ.
This whole article is really about practicing restraint when pigging out at Korean BBQ. I get that a lot of these tips are asking a lot but eating so much fat in one meal is definitely something that I believe is very important.
I’ve been eating Korean BBQ all my life and, although I haven’t followed these 5 steps when I was a kid, I will definitely follow them as I get closer to 30 and above. There are many consequences that come from overeating fats or just overeating in general.
Staying lean and fit depends so much on energy balance which is the concept of comparing the calories your body burns to the calories it consumes on a day to day basis. If you’re interested in learning more about how to get lean and stay fit, then here is an article where we go in-depth about the concept of energy balance.
I love health and fitness so I will implement healthy habits whenever the opportunity to do so comes. I hope this article can motivate you to do the same and be mindful of what you put into your body.
There It Is!
5 steps for you to stay Keto and healthy while eating at your favorite Korean BBQ restaurant. In this article we talked about what typically goes inside each cut of beef, the nutrition facts of the cuts, and helpful tips you can implement to stay lean and healthy.
If you’re interested in the calorie contents of other Asian foods, make sure to check out our other articles and learn about fitness tips and healthy eating habits.
Phillip Pak is a fitness expert who has been training clients for 5 years. Throughout his fitness journey, Phill has done it all when it comes to diet and nutrition. He is now the owner of Aspire Fitness Walnut where his main goal is to help those who are seeking to find the best version of themselves. He’s been through the struggle of obtaining an good physique and knows how to share it with others.