Your brain on Mukbang

foodie beauty mukbanf Mukbang eating (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

Back in the summer of June 2020, I grew terribly addicted to Mukbang videos on YouTube. We were a couple of months into the lockdown. The world seemed bleaker with every passing day and all we had for respite was the internet.

It all started with a channel named ‘Eat with Boki, where a South Korean nymphet takes big, clean bites of sloppy food. The eponymous Boki was a Mukbang “artist” known for chowing down copious amounts of food. From seafood to ramen, she inhaled everything seemingly in a single sitting. Large morsels of food disappeared neatly inside her mouth without as much as a grain of rice or a drop of sauce dripping out.

Adding to the appeal were the hypnotic ASMR sounds of her chewing, slurping and gulping. And there I was sitting with my insipid bowl of oats upma, savouring Boki’s food with my eyes and ears if not my tongue. Half repulsed and half transfixed, I went deeper and deeper into the mukbang rabbit hole. Soon I was binging on Foodie Beauty, Zach Choi, Nikakado Avacado and even Amber Lyn Reid.

Mukbang madness

Soon enough, my mukbang madness started affecting my food choices. Instant noodles started ending up in my virtual shopping cart regularly. Daal chawal and oats upma started getting pushed off the menu and were replaced by chicken nuggets, chips and even aerated drinks, which I had long abstained from for waistline reasons.

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It was not long before my husband took note of conspicuous love for mukbang-esque food. Thanks to his well-intentioned taunts, self-awareness kicked in on time. (And that’s why ladies, I am such a big proponent of marriage). I have since stopped watching mukbangs altogether.

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What is Mukbang?

The simple definition of mukbang is an “eating show.” The word mukbang comes from Korean words meokneun (eat) and bangsong (broadcast). These shows feature “performers” eating for an online audience. The trend started in 2014 in South Korea and has spread to the rest of the world, including India.

Mukbangers typically eat unusually large portions of foods in a single sitting. They snack on novelty foods that may be too big or too outlandish, anything that makes for an interesting watch.

Most performers also prefer foods that are ultra decadent. These also include foods that put up a visual show — stretchy cheese, greasy meats or, in some extreme cases, live seafood.

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Seok-Kyeong Hong and Sojeong Park’s 2018 study enlisted some common types of mukbangers: “The Diva”, an attractive young woman with a perfect body; “big food fighter” or the burly young man who likes to take up impossible food challenges; “calm eater” who rarely make a fuss; “weirdo”, who broadcasts eccentric behaviours; and “cooks” who actually cook and eat the foods they make.

Why people watch mukbang videos

Living la Vida vicariously
Speaking for myself, I indulged in mukbang watching at a very strange time in my life — during the lockdown. In the initial days, food delivery services were scarce and dining out was not an option.

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So every time I felt a craving, I turned to mukbangs to vicariously enjoy seeing someone eating a large pizza or chugging down an entire vat of ice cream.

Sheer entertainment

Many viewers watch these videos for their entertainment value. Mukbangers like Nikocado Avocado and Foodie Beauty serve their videos with a side of salacious entertainment.

Nikocado’s descent into madness: 

Foodie Beauty’s unsavoury stories:

Apart from the thrill of watching performers eat, viewers also lap up the over-the-top drama, story-telling and other entertaining bits of mukbang videos.

Emotional connection
Research also highlights the emotional aspects of such videos, which help the viewers connect with the performer as they “ate” together.

Watching mukbang can bring about subjective closeness and a sense of community. Viewers who live alone can overcome loneliness at least during mealtime.

“…through food and eating, mukbang watchers were associated to each other by a feeling of co-presence that overcame physical distance”

Food porn
There are sinister reasons too. A 2018 study by Schwegler-Castañer said that some viewers may be fetishizing women who are eating.

Glen Donnar in a 2017 study pointed out that attractive women in a “private and vulnerable state” while eating get subjected to the sexualised gaze of the viewers.

There’s also an escapist aspect to it. A 2015 study by Haimey and Yazdanifard found that it was a way for South Koreans to escape the stress of a hypercompetitive and fast-paced life.

A 2017 study by Bruno and Chung posited that viewers also escaped the guilt and stress of being physically unfit by watching these videos.

How mukbang videos affect your health

Like every other enjoyable thing in life, mukbang has its drawbacks. The most obvious effect is its impact on disordered eating.

Can lead to altered food perception
Oddly, in the mukbang pecking order, the thin ones are almost always the most popular. Zach Choi, Stephanie Soo, MommyTang, Veronica Wang, Hamzy, etc. are all quite fit by mukang eating standards.

Boki who is quite lean for her supposed appetite was exposed a while ago for spitting out food between takes.  Not long ago, hawk-eyed viewers noticed she was deftly editing her videos to make viewers believe that she ate every bit of food piled in front of her.

Watching mukbangers eating copious amounts of fast food and yet staying thin can mislead many people into underestimating the effects of overeating.

According to Spencer et al. (2019), “…watching mukbang videos where mukbangers eat very large portions of food might easily lead mukbang viewers to higher than normal consumption.”

Seconding this view, Hong and Park also observed that these videos could alter your perception of food consumption.

Can push you towards unhealthy food
The 2018 study by Hong and Park noted that mukbangs could also lead you away from healthy traditional eating to more nutritionally bereft food. Mukbangers usually consume greasy, spicy, calorific junk food, influencing viewers to also develop a craving for them.

Can promote bad table manners
The same study also called out mukbang videos for promoting bad table manners like slurping, licking, eating with a mouth full and exhibiting gluttony.

My favourite analysis of mukbangs:

Benefits of mukbang? :-/

But all said and done, there some pluses to mukbang videos if done right. A 2020 review on Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry studied the comments left by viewers on popular videos and observed that some viewers could have possibly benefited from them. :-O

“…watching mukbang is not necessarily experienced as either helpful or destructive, but instead as simultaneously useful and hurtful.”

Some viewers use mukbang as a vicarious method to enjoy food, especially while on a diet: “to curb my appetite and stop myself from digging into a tub of ice cream… I genuinely feel sorry for them, but it also motivates me… a visualization of how I don’t want to end up.”

The slurping and noisy chewing can trigger misophonia in a lot of viewers, putting them off their cravings. “Makes me feel sick, but mainly when they’re noisy about it. But it’s enough to get rid of the craving I had…Gives me motivation,” one writes.

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Others who struggle with a poor appetite may also benefit from watching these videos.

Mostly, mukbangs are great for those doomed to dine alone. For many who live away from loved ones, it offers “company” while eating. “Mukbangs can definitely make you feel less lonely if it’s done by someone whose personality you enjoy,” writes one user.