Extreme Eating: Are "Mukbangs" Helpful or Hurtful to Those With Eating Disorders?

On Youtube, I’ve pretty much found every kind of video; from cat videos to how-to videos to prank videos, there is a large variety of different topics that can be features in a typical Youtube video. However, I was still surprised years ago when I saw my very first “mukbang” (먹방) video. A recent trend in Korea, mukbang – Korean abbreviation for the term “eating show” – is an Internet webcast stream or recorded video of people eating large amounts of food. These people might prepare the food in front of a camera, or just simply eat; regardless, the point is for the viewer to watch strangers eat their food. Unlike eating competitions, which are comprised of eating professionals who are trained to devour food as fast as possible, mukbangs are shot by seemingly ordinary people who might eat something as simple as a McDonalds meal, although the portions are usually large.

People from Western cultures might find this bizarre; I’m pretty sure I did the very first time I saw this, and even dismissed it as a quirky interest of a small subset of people. Then, I was shocked to learn that these streamers would make thousands of dollars a month from viewers’ donations. In fact, there are a lot of other binge eating channels now done by American Youtubers as well, with titles of videos such as “The 50,000 Calorie Challenge!”.

One possible explanation for the growing popularity of mukbang is offered by Jeff Yang, senior vice president of Kantar Futures, who said that mukbang probably came about due to “the loneliness of unmarried or uncoupled [South] Koreans, in addition to the inherently social aspect of eating in [South] Korea.” Indeed, these streamers, known as broadcast jockeys (BJs), often interact with their live stream viewers, talking about their day while eating and talking to their viewers.

Personally, I have watched many gaming videos on Youtube, and several of my friends have asked why people would watch videos of other people playing games rather than playing the game themselves. My response to watching others engaging in everyday activities such as eating and gaming is that there is an appealing social aspect of connecting with your favorite gamer or BJ, watching them play or eat while they talk about their lives, and virtually meeting someone else who enjoys the same activities that you enjoy.

It is apparent, however, that there is also a rapidly growing community of people who view mukbangs for a completely different reason. This community is primarily comprised of people with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. As I’ve looked up more information about mukbangs, what interested me the most were online forums and communities of people suffering from eating disorders who were discussing the great appeal of mukbang and other binge eating videos. In fact, one Youtuber, known as “Erik TheElectric”, is open about how his eating channel helped him deal with his anorexia and encouraged him to handle eating comfortably with others. Scrolling through the comments of his videos, there are many commenters who write about how his videos encourage them to be more comfortable about eating as well, and help them grow appetites. In this way, I feel that mukbangs have the potential to help lots of people who may not feel hungry throughout the day, or those who feel uncomfortable about the notion of indulging in a large amount of food.

I think what isn’t talked about as much, however, is the negative effects that mukbangs may introduce. In fact, I would even consider them to be dangerous under certain circumstances. For some people with disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorder, mukbangs might portray massive binge eating as normal or healthy behavior. For example, when scrolling through some online forums, I found long chains of people who were discussing whether BJs would purge themselves between streaming sessions, because of how thin or fit that they looked. Some users also commented that being a BJ would be a dream job, because they would get to continue binge eating while also getting paid. These people who would normally engage in binge/purge sessions privately envision themselves earning money by simply filming the binging part, and editing out the purging part. This, however, poses a serious problem because people affected by disordered eating are now incentivized and encouraged to continue engaging in harmful and unhealthy behavior.

Mukbang is a double-edged sword, and we need to recognize it as a recent development to the overall landscape of online factors that affect people with eating disorders. It is important for us to understand the positive ways in which mukbangs can affect people struggling from disordered eating – such as healthy increased appetite – while at the same time being cognizant of the negative aspects. This way, we can better help people recover from their disorders and communicate to others, rather than looking to mukbang as a way to continue feeding their patterns of disordered eating.

By Mingu Kim '18 | Staff Writer