The Mukbang Mindset

The most recent Childhood Obesity News post introduced mukbang, or the profession of overeating, but so far covered only the behavior, not the psychology. The motives of the performers, who in some cases earn lavish amounts, are not in question. Although potentially suicidal and hardly contributory to society’s greater good, performative binge eating is as legitimate a way to make a living as, for instance, stock car racing.

But what about the fans, who avidly devour the sight of their fellow humans devouring food (especially, for some reason, noodles)? Given an internet that features so many thousands of wellness videos, what is going on with this incredible profusion of un-wellness videos? Why are people compelled to surrender their consciousness to such a weird hobby?

Multifaceted mukbang

The moral aspect certainly attracts a certain amount of unfavorable comment, in a world where so many starve. When some observers see a highly-paid celebrity eat enough to feed a whole village, the word that comes immediately to mind is “obscene.” Mukbang invests the term “food porn” with fresh meaning. This phrase no longer describes only the masterfully produced photos of fancy dishes that grace the pages of upscale magazines, but something more.

On the most basic level, cinema history foretold that particular aspect of the mukbang culture. The 1963 film Tom Jones included a scene that gave critics plenty to talk about, and provided fans with inspiration to add a new dimension to their love lives. Similarly, pretending to be part of the action is one of the attractions of this present-day fad. Journalist Melissa Matthews described the rationalization presented by an interviewee:

While eating a reasonable dinner of chicken, rice, and beans, she watches her favorite YouTube star down two days’ worth of food.

Journalist Margot Harris quoted the sad defense mounted by another enthusiast:

[I watch] to live vicariously through them. I like watching them eat all the takeaway food I can never afford.

Some fans even tout an arguably therapeutic aspect to this strange brand of voyeurism. Mukbang star Kim Jungbum, age 16, confided to a reporter,

My friends tell me that they watch my show because they can vicariously eat the food through me and satisfy their needs when they are on a diet.

Neuroscientist Rachel Herz of Brown University wrote,

Someone with a binge eating disorder may start gorging on something. But at the same time, the vicarious experience of watching could resolve that urge for them to binge. It would depend on the person and how these triggers affect them.

Margot Harris wrote,

Some viewers even report that watching mukbangs helps mitigate personal issues with food, from curbing cravings to fighting patterns of disordered eating.

She cites a fan who lives vicariously takes part in junk food binges because it helps her stick to a more reasonable diet in real life. But another testimonial quoted by the reporter is more problematic in nature:

It was was one of the things that helped me with my anxiety about food. I always dreaded eating because I knew I would eventually throw up later. I’m always impressed by the amount of food they eat and it motivates me to eat more.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “These Viral ‘Mukbang’ Stars Get Paid to Gorge on Food—at the Expense of Their Bodies,” MensHealth.com, 01/18/19
Source: “A Beginner’s Guide to Mukbangs,” Insider.com, 03/02/20
Source: “South Korea to clamp down on binge-eating trend amid obesity fears,” Telegraph.co.uk, 10/25/18
Source: “American Mukbang: Why We Love to Watch People Eat,” Thrillist.com, 2/27/2020
Image by Alan Levine/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Presentations

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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