The Mukbang Origin Story

On the fascinating topic of mukbang, journalist Heather Matthews points out that its enthusiasts prefer extremes of behavior. The great majority of fans want to see the “hosts” ingest not just enormous quantities of food, but specifically, mountains of greasy and calorie-rich junk. Matthews writes,

They’re not afraid of dips, sauces and other add-ons that bump up the calorie counts. They’re willing to eat vast amounts of diet-busting foods. From rich pastas to crispy meats fried in oils to white bread and processed snacks, they are willing to push things to the edge for our entertainment.

Eating videos seem to have first showed up about 10 years ago, in South Korea. They soon gained a foothold in the culture and then spread to other parts of the world. Apologists remind critics that the fad started with the benign intention to provide a social good. Many South Koreans live alone, unmarried, or otherwise un-partnered — which is seen as a breakdown of family values. One of those cherished family values is the sharing of meals. The videos that glorify binge-eating allegedly started with the noble intention of alleviating loneliness.

Writer Caitlin Sacasas offers the more purely altruistic theory that…

[…] it may have less to do with loneliness and more to do with enjoyment of seeing someone else’s enjoyment… It’s a simple joy to take happiness from watching someone else be happy.

Much like the aficionados who feel genuinely connected to podcasters like Alison Rosen and Marc Maron, most fans experience emotional closeness to their favorite mukbang stars. The personalities are the draw. Researchers Mattias Strand and Sanna Aila Gustafsson wrote that despite the weirdness and grotesquerie, mukbang performances “have nothing overtly cynical about them.” In videos studied by the team,

[…] the tone is friendly, intimate, and youthful… [T]his parasocial quality may not be truly reciprocal and the mukbang phenomenon as such could certainly be critiqued from an anti-consumerist point of view. Even so, the actual performance of mukbang eating is uniformly depicted as the host taking on and joyously conquering the enormous amounts of food rather than the food-as-commodity triumphing over the consumer.

Journalist Dana Givens quotes registered dietician Abbey Sharp, who believes that things have gone too far:

In her video she says, “what I do have a problem with is that Americans have appropriated this concept of mukbang to no longer be about companionship, but rather to these over-the-top, sensationalized eating challenges,” which in a clinical setting would constitute disordered eating.

Strand and Gustafsson mention the same unfortunate shift:

Interestingly, such eating contests have been described as combining the spectacle of the medieval carnival with modern ideas of consumerism and abundance. For example, the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held in Coney Island, New York City, has been aired on live television to millions of viewers since the early 2000s.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Top 10 Untold Truths About Mukbang,” BabbleTop.com, 03/20/19
Source: “WTF is Mukbang and Why Should You Watch these Viral Korean Videos?,” FluentIn3Months.com, 03/22/19
Source: “Mukbang and Disordered Eating: A Netnographic Analysis of Online Eating Broadcasts,” Springer.com, 04/10/20
Source: “American Mukbang: Why We Love to Watch People Eat,” Thrillist.com, 02/27/2020
Image by Tony Fischer/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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