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[LLG] Healing through K-food: Brit shares recovery from eating disorder through immersion in new food culture

Korea's culture of affordable dining with diverse side dishes, sharing and absence of calorie disclosure was unfamiliar at first, but liberating, says Bristol native

June 12, 2024 - 15:49 By No Kyung-min
Lewis Hooper poses for a photo at The Korea Herald's office building on May. 1. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Lewis Hooper, who turned 30 this year, exudes youthful energy, but for much of his 20s, he was dangerously thin.

As a result of his struggle with eating disorders, he weighed just 31 kilograms despite standing 170 centimeters tall.

In an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, he shared that a turning point in his path to recovery and developing a healthier relationship with food and his body came when he moved in 2021 to Korea on a working holiday visa.

Obsession with body image

Hooper said the driving force behind his eating disorder stemmed from his ultimate career aspiration of becoming a professional actor.

"In the UK, working full-time in the customer service industry, I was already dabbling in acting or modeling on the side," he noted.

Believing that a "scrawny" appearance would help his success in the entertainment industry, he restricted his food intake. At times, when looking in the mirror, he even perceived himself as "fat," in spite of being emaciated.

"Despite concerns from family, friends and colleagues about my health, I stubbornly clung to my restrictive regimen," Hooper told The Korea Herald.

His daily intake back in his hometown of Bristol, England consisted of a carbohydrate-deficient diet: a yogurt drink for breakfast, a banana and cashew nuts for lunch, and salmon or chicken breast with vegetables for dinner, totaling around 600 calories per day.

His anorexia escalated to the point where he weighed just 5 stone -- about 32 kilograms -- in his mid-20s. His body mass index was around 10.

According to the World Health Organization, a BMI of less than 18.5 is classified as underweight, while a BMI of less than 16 is considered "severely thin."

"This even led to me collapsing on the street in the summer of 2019 after work, while on my way to a bus stop," Hooper confessed. Despite receiving intravenous feeding for immediate nutrition therapy at the hospital, he remained adamant about not consuming the protein powder prescribed by his doctor.

His struggle was more complex than it appeared, encompassing physical and mental dimensions. He underwent cognitive processing therapy as part of his recovery journey, which included techniques such as mirror work for self-healing.

His condition improved, with his weight growing to about 48 kilograms. Nevertheless, he said that the genuine transformative experience would not have been possible without his venture to South Korea.

At the height of the pandemic, when he was furloughed from his job in Bristol, South Korea intrigued him as an unexplored destination. Further enticing him were the working opportunities provided by the two nations' exchange working holiday program for those 18-35.

Lewis Hooper poses for a photo at The Korea Herald's office building on May. 1. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

New culture, new diet

While working various jobs such as a language exchange assistant, he tried to find modeling or acting work here. But feedback from agencies here often cited his lack of a "healthy-looking" appearance as a hindrance.

Though initially hesitant about the idea of gaining weight, he soon discovered that some aspects of the culture of food consumption in Korea made eating varied meals more natural. Also, the dining-out experience was especially helpful in immersing him into culinary experiences.

Where he used to work in Bristol, eating out is not as common as it is here, he said, especially when dining alone.

But he has found asking for a table for one to be quite convenient in restaurant-packed Seoul.

"The abundance of dining establishments in Seoul seems to create a culture where eating alone at a restaurant doesn't feel as odd as it did in the UK," he remarked. "The only occasions I dined alone outside (back at home) were when I was on a business trip."

Moreover, he also mentioned a relative financial merit of dining out here.

"Due to the lack of cooking facilities like an oven at home, coupled with the relatively high prices of ingredients at supermarkets (here), I found eating at a restaurant to be a more affordable option," he said, also noting that not having to tip at restaurants here lessened his financial burden, relatively speaking.

For Hooper, one of the factors that stimulates his appetite is the visually appealing dining setup, as exemplified by dishes like colorful bibimbap or a set featuring Korean pork belly cuts alongside a wide variety of side dishes.

Moreover, the absence of ingredient and calorie information on restaurant menus proved to be a liberating factor.

"Unlike most British restaurants, where I could easily access a range of dietary information about meals, here, the menus often only list the names of dishes," he explained. "Ironically, this lack of information helped alleviate my obsession with what I was eating, as I could remain blissfully ignorant while tasting various types of dishes."

The absence of detailed information further encouraged Hooper to embrace new culinary experiences, thanks to the food-sharing culture prevalent when dining with others.

"Communal sharing when dining out allows me to sample a wide range of main dishes and seasoned vegetables as side dishes," he remarked, further mentioning the nutritional benefits of trying different ingredients, as well as the opportunities to explore a culinary realm where he developed a genuine appreciation for food.

He also talked about finding comfort in being able to cook at the table, referring to the use of stoves to prepare meat or stew. This, in part, helped alleviate his concern about food intake, allowing him "to feel more at ease," as he "could exert control over how the food is cooked."

After all, embracing these aspects of Korean food culture played a key role in Hooper's recovery.

He gained weight in a healthy manner, not only feeling more confident now but also noticing a significant improvement in his energy levels and sleep quality.

"Now, I truly enjoy eating," he shared, "feeling more alive and free from the constraints of my eating disorder."

Thanks in part to Korea's food culture, he said he now maintains a weight of 63 kilograms -- twice as much as his lowest point, with a BMI in the normal range. He now works as a freelance model and actor, with occasional reporting jobs.

Looking back on his journey, Hooper expressed hope that his story might offer assistance to those battling eating disorders now, especially men who may not receive as much attention as women regarding this issue.

"It's vital to address body image issues that negatively affect people, because they don't discriminate based on gender," he said.

Standing for living, loving and growing, LLG goes beyond the realm of daily news, exploring the vibrant tapestry of modern life, as told by real people. -- Ed.

Lewis Hooper poses for a photo at the Taj Mahal in 2018. (Lewis Hooper)
Lewis Hooper poses for a photo at The Korea Herald's office building on May. 1. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)