Popular mukbang video host Zach Choi sits happily in front of a succulent bowl of black bean fire noodles that could feed a family of 12. He prances a plate of chicken nuggets across the screen, building towers of them next to his bowl. For 12 minutes, you can watch as Zach gorges – gorge being the operative word. No speech distracts from the slurping and crunching. Red and orange oils coat his lips and drip from his chin. YouTubers unanimously approve.
Thumbs up: 864K; thumbs down: zero. Subscribe to watch his feats with fried chicken and triple cheeseburgers.
Ami, however, has Zach beat – you could bathe twin toddlers in the size of her bowl of ramen. Commenters equally mesmerized while watching her astonishing YouTube video find watching her slurp down the massive pond of noodles to be “cute” and “adorable.” Welcome to the magic of mukbang, a highly popular trend that the network’s creators surely never saw coming.
What is mukbang?
Mukbang videos are an Internet phenomenon. Individual hosts film themselves eating shocking amounts of food in one sitting, streaming the feats on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. The word mukbang (먹방) is a Korean abbreviation for “eating show.” The spectacle originated in South Korea around 2014 and is now a global trend. The American South and Brazil are leading the growth in mukbang streaming videos. Many of the food-consumers are women.
Usually, a mukbang video features a particular type of food, (e.g., pasta or sushi); certain fast foods are popular. Some hosts are more adventurous – like Zach, who chows down on deep-fried corn dogs coated with a batter of crushed Hot Cheetos.
High sugar, high fat, and highly processed foods seem de rigueur. Many viewers look for videos labeled “ASMR” (autonomous sensory meridian response), in pursuit of a tingling sensation in the crown of the head when experiencing elaborate audio-visual triggers. Such triggers include gentle whispering, the turning of book pages, or somebody slurping and chewing in a delicate manner.
Now, South Korean health officials have expressed great concern with a recent surge in obesity among Koreans. Almost half of Korean men are obese. According to an article in the Korea Biomedical Review: “The socioeconomic costs of obesity in a nation once deemed one of the skinniest countries in the world are expected to grow exponentially, doubling in the next 10 years. Accompanying diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are rising in tandem.”
The health officials have stated that displays such as mukbang require more attention and possibly governmental regulation.
Mukbang and disordered eating
The term disordered eating describes a variety of problematic eating behaviors, such as restrictive eating, binge eating, along with compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging, excessive physical exercise, or laxative misuse). Usually, these behaviors indicate body image concerns.
Disordered eating may be subtle or may fulfill formal diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness.
- Anorexia nervosa – restriction of intake, low body weight, fear of weight gain, distorted body image
- Bulimia nervosa – binge eating with inappropriate compensatory behaviors, excessive emphasis on weight and body shape
- Binge eating – binge eating without compensatory behaviors
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) – restrictive eating unrelated to body image concerns, such as sensory selectivity or low appetite
Taking pleasure in food, often with company, is a natural part of a healthy life. Anecdotal reports in social media, however, describe how mukbang videos can trigger and reinforce behaviors such as binge eating or purging. There are also reports of individuals who used videos to help restrain binge eating, or which stimulate the appetite of restrictive eaters, and make them more comfortable eating in social settings.
Mukbang has been described as “a double-edged sword.” It can be both helpful and destructive. In any case, the normalization of these behaviors displays them as an acceptable form of eating.
From the mouths of the viewers
A 2020 study on the effects of mukbang videos analyzed 174,000 viewer comments on You-Tube and Reddit. A few:
- “I love watching mukbangs when I’m restricting. It brings me a satisfaction that they’re inhaling the calories and I’m not but also extreme jealousy and my mouth literally waters when I watch them sometimes. The high cal mukbangs are the best lol”
- “I haven’t eaten a real meal in three days, so this is what I ‘eat.’”
- “After two years in recovery, mukbangs triggered me to relapse.”
- “I totally get what you mean about the familiarity and closeness feeling. Mukbangs can definitely make you feel less lonely.”
- “Makes me feel sick, but mainly when they’re noisy about it.”
The ambivalence in user comments is striking. They see the videos as simultaneously useful and hurtful. Often, viewers experience multiple, even contradictory, affects and behavioral impulses at once. Limiting food intake in the moment may accompany reducing shame about eating, or a reduction in loneliness mixed with distress about the thin body ideal that seems inherent in the videos.
Parasocial interaction is a kind of psychological relationship experienced by viewers in their mediated encounters with performers in mass media, particularly television. There is debate about whether parasocial interaction is a dysfunctional behavior, as a substitute for non-virtual relationships.
Some evidence suggests that parasocial interaction broadens the scope of an individual’s interpersonal relationships, rather than compensates for a lack of closeness. This study indicates that mukbang viewers develop parasocial relationships with mukbang hosts, which are experienced as helpful in reducing loneliness or alleviating feelings of guilt.
A challenge for future research is to access the mukbang community. Formal interviews with mukbang hosts, viewers, and participants about their experiences within the phenomenon could be quite helpful for researchers.