Watching people eat on YouTube. Is it a new form of eating disorder?
My habit of watching YouTubers eat on camera started as a joke. I was a few days into my new life as a vegan, and my best friend thought it would be funny to send me videos of people eating crab legs fried in fluorescent Cheeto dust and dipped in cheese sauce. I thought it was funny, too.
There I sat in the dark as someone called ToshPointFro lifted Cheeto-covered crab bits, dipped them in queso, pointed them toward the camera (almost as if she were offering viewers a taste), and gracefully placed them into her mouth without smudging her lipstick. Tosh’s chewing sounds filled my apartment, her lips spread into a smile, and I smiled with her. I was hooked on my first mukbang.
Mukbangs—pronounced mook-bongs—involve people broadcasting their meals, which tend to be large amounts and unexpected food combinations, on the internet, often while viewers eat alongside and interact with them. They started in South Korea, and the term is a Korean portmanteau of muk-ja, which means eating, and bangsong, which means broadcast. Together, the loose translation is “eat-cast,” Robert Ji-Song Ku, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Asian and Asian American studies at the State University of New York Binghamton University, tells SELF.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when internet trends actually start, Ku says that the earliest mukbangs he’s able to find date back to around 2008 on a digital platform called AfreecaTV, where users start their own channels or shows. Ku believes that mukbang popularity in the United States might be part of the “Korean Wave,” which is the term used to describe the increased popularity of Korean culture around the world. Mukbangs could be a literal extension of our appetite for Korean pop music, TV shows, and beauty products, he says.
I didn’t have any of that context when I found myself watching mukbangs every single night before bed for a week. But as more mukbangers flooded my feeds and the New York Times covered one of the most popular American mukbangers, it became clear that I wasn’t alone in my fascination.
I know there’s nothing inherently weird about gleefully riding the latest internet wave to reach digital American shores. Still, I couldn’t shake a faint sense of guilt. I was watching randos eat giant crab legs while trying my hand at a vegan lifestyle. To be fair, I hadn’t gone vegan with strong convictions about what it could do for my health, the environment, or the lives of animals. Honestly, I was just curious about what life as a vegan would be like. So, was there really anything wrong with my love of watching people eat things I wouldn’t eat myself? And with binge eating being the most common eating disorder in the United States, was it OK to watch people eat heaps and heaps of food for my own enjoyment? These worries combined to make me feel like my love of mukbangs could be in poor taste. They also made me want to investigate what I find so alluring about mukbangs and if I really feel OK continuing to watch them.
So, there isn’t a lot of research to unpack on the topic, but mukbangs share similarities with “gastro porn.” Known more colloquially as food porn, these are images of desirable foods that you might find on cooking shows, on food blogs, and on your best friend’s Instagram.
Most of us can agree that eating is sensory as well as functional, with the visual component of food adding to or subtracting from the overall experience. “Scholars have talked of the imagined consumption of imagery as both spurring and satisfying the appetite,” Anna Lavis, Ph.D., lecturer in medical sociology and qualitative methods at the Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham, tells SELF.
Watching other people eat can trigger something Lavis, who studies how the internet impacts disordered eating behaviors, calls “eating through the other.” “Visceral viewing becomes a moment of eating from afar,” she explains.
Lest you think mukbangs are all about watching someone devour almost unbelievably large meals, they are also about the sound: the crack of a crab leg, the slurp of soup, the crunch and munch of Flamin’ Hot Cheeto-dusted meat being pulverized by teeth, and the nearly imperceptible squish of a seafood morsel hitting a mound of cheese sauce.
I normally despise eating sounds. I might leave a room if someone moans over their meal or stop mid-chew if I think my own eating might annoy others. Yet, somehow, listening to YouTubers crack, crunch, moan, chew, and giggle as they eat doesn’t bother me at all. It could be that I don’t freak out because we’re not actually face-to-face—I can always hit the pause button, after all—or it could be that intentionally exaggerated food sounds start to sound like something a little more pleasant.
The joy I get from mukbangers’ eating noises could be attributed, at least in part, to the “brain tingles” that come from listening to or seeing something the brain perceives as pleasant. These tingles are known as autonomous sensory meridian responses (or ASMR). Popular ASMR videos involve people whispering, brushing hair, tapping on surfaces, or even kneading putty or slime. But there are significant differences between mukbangs and typical ASMR eating videos.
“Mukbang is a louder and exaggerated style of eating, while ASMR-style eating is gentler and subtler,” Craig Richard, Ph.D., professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University and founder of the website ASMRUniversity, tells SELF.
It’s not totally clear why such different sounds can both produce these brain tingles, but we might be able to just chalk it up to the diversity of human nature. “Preferences for different stimuli are a common occurrence, so it isn't surprising,” Richard says. “People generally have different preferences for foods, songs, TV shows, and fashion.”
It would make sense that the same brain regions that cause ASMR tingles are at least partially involved in my love of mukbangs, Richard explains. But it may be less about the actual sounds than it is about the people making them and how they act. The brain regions that seem implicated in ASMR, including the prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus, are also “the brain regions that are activated when someone is receiving positive attention from another individual,” Richard says. The brain tingles I and others feel in response to these types of videos could be coming from how kind or caring these YouTubers are as they speak or eat. When these YouTubers radiate gentleness and affection through the screen, they basically mimic “affiliative behaviors,” or the loving way people treat friends and family, Richard explains. Receiving this kind of positive attention causes the brain to release feel-good chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin, he adds.
This makes a lot of sense when I think of my favorite mukbanger, Natasha Peck (or ToshPointFro, she of crab/queso/Cheeto fame). Peck has garnered over 192,000 YouTube subscribers and 120,000 Instagram followers in a little over two years, in large part because of her sweet, sunny disposition.
“You would never think that eating on camera is actually helping someone, but I get told I express so much joy—and I'm genuinely happy when I'm eating—so I think people are searching for that positivity,” Peck tells SELF. “My purpose is to help people and remind them that happiness is possible.”
I am definitely drawn in by Peck’s bubbly personality, but there’s also my whole baby vegan situation to consider. While many people I know have taken up plant-based living after watching a health documentary, under the suggestion of a qualified professional, or due to ethical concerns about animal welfare or climate change, my vegan journey began with a shrug.
A good number of my family members are vegan, so I’d always known I’d eventually try it out to see if I understood the hype. One day in April, when I realized I needed to fully restock my empty fridge, I figured it was as good a time as ever to undergo a major dietary change. Also, I do have endometriosis, and it would be disingenuous to say that living in chronic pain doesn’t make me amenable to trying lifestyle changes that I’ve heard could be useful, even though there isn’t enough research to conclusively say that changing my diet would make any real impact. Ultimately, my decision was more curiosity than anything else. Even now, I stray from veganism when it feels appropriate (like when I found myself in New Orleans and simply needed to eat chargrilled oysters).
The first few days after I went vegan, I couldn’t stop thinking about food. I read more food labels and planned more meals than I ever had. I also discovered that I’m grumpy if I don’t have enough snacks and that when hunger descends upon me, it can easily cloud my judgment. Eating was suddenly much more of an intentional practice for me than it had been in the past. So when my friend sent me videos of seemingly free-spirited people shoving seafood, and Cheetos, and french fries into their mouths, I couldn’t look away. I didn’t want to.
Even now, watching mukbangers eat food combinations I would never actually want to taste helps me feel a little less deprived as I work through my decision to eat less meat and dairy. This, however, is part of my angst. I’m hypervigilant about the way that “clean eating” can be a proxy for disordered eating behaviors. I originally worried that my decision to abstain from foods I love coupled with this new mukbang-viewing habit might hint at a potentially problematic relationship with food.
As it turns out, given my new vegan situation, it’s natural to have food on my mind and to seek out content that either satisfies or reinforces my sense of self-control, Jenna DiLossi, Psy.D. and co-founder of the Center for Hope and Health, a psychotherapy practice in Pennsylvania that focuses on disordered eating, tells SELF.
“Broadly speaking, most psychological habits exist on a continuum of normal to pathological,” she explains, adding that psychologists frequently examine behaviors by looking at the intensity, frequency, duration, and pervasiveness of a particular habit. “How long are you watching videos; is watching these videos getting in the way of doing other things, and how do you feel when you don’t watch them?” she asks. “That’s kind of how you can begin to tell if your habit is a problem.”
Based on those questions, I’ve learned that my mukbang habit doesn’t seem to qualify as anything weird or worrisome. (And maybe I’m prone to overreacting.)
Even though the way I consume mukbangs falls within the realm of “normal” behavior, DiLossi says that videos of people eating massive amounts of food might inadvertently contribute to a culture that normalizes binge eating. She is careful to say that mukbangers aren't necessarily binge eating themselves, but they can’t control how their content inspires viewers.
How a person engages with and interprets food imagery and cultural cues is multifaceted. Social media and food porn can indeed influence someone’s diet in a way that could edge into disordered eating (especially if they’re already vulnerable to it), says Lavis. But popular culture’s tendency to see eating disorders as “contagious” illnesses that someone develops purely from watching online content ignores the wide range of behavioral and biological factors that contribute to disordered eating.
Still, this is something some mukbangers wrestle with as they try to responsibly produce the content they love. Peck is one of the few YouTube mukbangers I’ve come across who puts eating disorder and mental health support information in the descriptions of her posts. “I started to get messages from people who were having [these kinds of] issues in their personal lives,” she explains. “That made what I was doing a lot more real for me.”
When talking about ASMR videos specifically, Richard says there is a concern that people who engage with ASMR content to reduce anxiety might rely too heavily on videos instead of getting the help they need. In that kind of situation, disclaimers and open discussions about mental health from YouTubers might encourage viewers to think more deeply about their mental and emotional states. “[That] shows that this person is mindful of people who might be vulnerable and is trying to share responsible content for those who find the videos enjoyable,” Di Lossi says.
For what it’s worth, seeing these disclaimers underneath videos has eased my own angst about watching mukbangs. It makes me feel like the videos are being produced with some awareness about the real-life challenges people face and with the goal of not contributing to them.
All in all, I’m feeling pretty OK with my mukbang habit. I’m relieved to know that I can continue queuing up mukbang videos without guilt. I get to watch people eat wild things and remain vegan. It’s also nice to have something food-related to chat about with friends that isn’t plant protein and oat milk. But, thanks to that whole affiliative behaviors thing, my love of mukbangs really might run a little deeper than that.
Without knowing much about me, Peck says that if I am someone who lives by myself (I am) and works a 9 to 5 (I do), then she’s happy that I can talk to and eat alongside her each night (I swear I don’t) so I feel less alone.
Wait. Do I use mukbangs to stave off loneliness?
The good news: I don’t feel worried about my mukbang habit anymore. The bad news? I have new existential concerns.