The strange psychology of our mukbang obsession

Competitive overeating has found a new home (and millions of viewers) on YouTube. But while entertaining, for some people it can be dangerous and triggering.

by Roisin Lanigan
22 November 2019, 2:28pm

The camera opens on a coffee table groaning under the weight of the kind of food you dream about when you’re hungry, hungover or trying to eat healthily. A glass bowl piled high with cheesy Doritos, three overflowing queso dips, three hamburgers, a large loaded pizza and a mound of chicken wings. Behind the mountain of food a man wears a black t-shirt emblazoned with the total nutritional intake of the haul: over 20,000 calories. This “superbowl” challenge is just one of the hugely popular videos from Matt Stonie, a king of the overeating challenges that dominate YouTube.

Mammoth food content on YouTube is by no means a new concept. Mukbang videos, where YouTubers eat huge quantities of “unhealthy” noisy food, slurping and crunching into an ASMR mic, have been big business for the site for years now. It originally emerged almost a decade ago, the first videos having been created back in 2010 by Korean bloggers (the word “mukbang” is a portmanteau of the Korean words for “eating” and “broadcast”, essentially the English turn of phrase would be “eatcast”). Much has been written about the significance of mukbang videos in Korean society, where food and dining is a central pillar of collective culture, and is dictated by strict etiquette. A way of reacting against these traditions, mukbangs in their original format were also a kind of food porn, a way of vicariously enjoying the foods we know we “shouldn’t” eat through an on-screen -- usually conventionally attractive -- avatar.

Since 2010, mukbangs stars have emerged across the world, from Americans like Matt Stonie to English stars who gorge on Greggs and Morleys. Even Trisha Paytas and Jeffree Starr got in on the action. Zach Choi, who lives in Los Angeles, got hooked on the videos when he watched a clip of Bretman Rock eating honeycomb, and currently makes ASMR mukbang videos full time. Now counting over five million global subscribers, Zach posts regular content where he demolishes KFC, noodles, pasta and onion rings for his loyal fans -- and they love him for it. His videos regularly pull in tens of millions of viewers. In one, he even eats chalk (something he tells me he didn’t enjoy filming).

“I don’t think this a career that one could or should sustain forever,” the 32-year-old, who spends between $20 and $500 on his food for content, tells i-D. “A lot of people don’t want to eat alone so they use mukbang to feel like they are with someone while having dinner. Other people use it for diets and others use it to increase their appetite. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch someone consume large amounts of delicious food?”

Although Zach’s videos mostly see him eating food high in oil, fat and (obviously) calories, he says he manages to stay healthy by working out “religiously” for up to two hours a day, and restricting his diet when not filming. “I usually only eat once per day, for my video,” he explains. “I supplement with powdered fruits and vegetables and work out no matter what. I just got checked up with blood work a few months ago and my cholesterol, glucose and vitamins are all in the ideal range. My doctor attributed my health to my workout regiment. As for mental health, I don’t believe the food has had any impact, negative or positive. Being a creator on YouTube, however, is a completely different story. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the amount of stress at any other job I’ve had before. Creating daily content takes a toll on you both physically and mentally and I’m long overdue a break.”

The mukbang, then, has become Man vs Food for the internet era; chaotic, indulgent, the kind of trash, car crash TV that’s insanely watchable and available constantly. As Zach says, who doesn’t want to watch someone consume huge amounts of food? We can now spend hours on YouTube binge-watching other people’s binge-eating. But when you weigh the popularity of mukbang and overeating videos up against our collective attitudes to food, which can be incredibly restrictive, a more complex picture emerges.

In the decade that mukbangs have become ubiquitous on YouTube, the concept of “clean eating” has remained insidiously popular, eclipsed only by the rise of “intermittent fasting”. The intermittent fasting subreddit has over half a million members, and some high profile advocates -- earlier this week Jameela Jamil attacked rapper CupcaKke for an Instagram post where she put her weight loss transformation down to a month long fast. Zach’s own regime, of eating only once per day, also comes under the umbrella of intermittent fasting, the so-called OMAD (One Meal A Day) diet. While there are scientific benefits attributed to intermittent fasting, proponents of the regime are careful to encourage anyone with a history of disordered eating patterns to avoid it, because the restriction cycles can trigger relapse or mental health issues. Although, admittedly, ‘trending’ plans like “intuitive eating” also exist, it’s clear that our attitudes to food and dieting still, on the whole, emphasise restriction

Dietician Abbey Sharp claims that these attitudes and the kind of overindulging we see in mukbang content can be problematic. “Food porn is entertaining, especially to people who are dieting and restricting themselves from delicious foods,” Abbey explains, likening the popularity of the videos to an appropriation by influencers who simply want to film their own cheat days. “They absolutely do not reflect a healthy attitude to food and eating. No one needs to be purposefully eating beyond their needs and ignoring their body’s innate hunger and fullness cues. The kind of junk food featured in mukbangs is of course fine in moderation, but it isn’t normal eating to consume large amounts of these foods in one sitting.”

But Abbey is not just concerned about the health consequences to the video creators themselves. She thinks that some viewers -- particularly those vulnerable to disordered eating patterns -- can be left at risk. “These videos reinforce a dangerous diet cycle where a binge is often followed by more restriction which then fuels another binge. I’ve had many viewers tell me how watching these videos trigger their disordered eating tendencies and remind them of their own binge and restrict cycle. These videos seem to glamourise a lot of these disordered eating tendencies, especially when in the context of an otherwise restrictive diet. Over time, these eating extremes become normalised and can inspire disordered eating in viewers.”

It’s true that for many of us, watching mukbang videos is simply escapism -- a more chaotic version of the calming energy of Gourmet Makes, basically -- but for others, this kind of food porn can be a slippery slope. “If you feel triggered or unsafe, the best thing you can do is instigate a real social media detox,” Abbey offers. “Cleanse your accounts of creators who trigger you, or who you think embody an unhealthy relationship with food.” It’s sound advice. We’re now (thankfully) aware of how problematic and triggering the discourse around “clean eating” can be, and how filling our phones and feeds with idealised images of supposedly ultra-healthy influencers can make us feel bad about our own bodies in comparison, but the other end of that spectrum, for some, can be just as unhealthy. Our advice? Perhaps embrace the comforting, calm environment of the Test Kitchen instead and leave the mukbangs to drop out of your YT algorithm for good.

Eating Disorders