A Bizarre South Korean Food Trend Has Gone Viral — But Nutritionists Say You Shouldn’t Join In

A YouTuber turns on their camera, and the feed goes live. They have a plate of food in front of them, and they begin to eat. It sounds harmless enough, but this internet trend — one that started in South Korea and took off in the United States — has experts worried about the effects it could have on people’s mental and physical health.

It’s nothing new for a food challenge or recipe to break the internet. You can probably think back and remember some of the ones that you’ve seen online — or that you may have tried yourself. In 2011, for example, the cinnamon challenge went viral. All you had to do was swallow a spoonful of cinnamon in a minute without washing it down with water.

It sounds simple enough, but it wouldn’t have made waves if it was possible to do. Instead, people found it hard to breathe after trying the challenge — some even had to rush to the hospital. But it made for some wild YouTube videos and a trial by food that so many viewers felt they had to try for themselves.

The ghost pepper challenge set the internet on fire, too — pun intended. All you had to do was eat this notoriously hot chili and live to tell the tale. A simple search on YouTube will give you an idea of how many people attempted to beat the ghost pepper. There are thousands of uploaded clips that show people suffering through this one.

It’s not just food challenges that set the internet ablaze. Must-try, wacky and clever recipes often get people sharing and trying new foods, too. Cloud eggs, 2017’s must-try breakfast, is one example. To prep them, you whip up egg whites, bake them in cloud formation, then pour the yolk back into the center and bake it all together.

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Speaking of whipped, you might have also found yourself scrambling to find that jar of instant coffee at the back of your pantry to try the once-viral dalgona coffee. This drink did, indeed, make for a great Instagram post in 2020. It featured a whipped-up layer of milk topped with an equally as thick dollop of coffee to top things off.

The predecessor to all of these viral food sensations and challenges, though, is competitive eating. Major League Eating — the governing body for this activity — traces America’s competitive-eating history back to 1916. That year marked the first-ever Nathan’s Famous hot dog-eating contest, which took place in New York’s Coney Island.

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In recent years, that very hot dog-eating contest has become a must-watch, thanks to the professional competitive eaters who have taken part. First it was Takeru Kobayashi who grabbed the spotlight. In spite of his small stature, he won six Nathan’s contests in a row, downing an impressive 53.75 frankfurters in his final first-place finish in 2006.

In 2007, though, a new champion took the throne at Nathan’s. His name was Joey Chestnut, and he has been nearly undefeated in the competition ever since. His 2020 win saw him eat a staggering 75 hot dogs over the course of the ten-minute competition. It’s wild to think that this type of eating could be even tangentially linked to an internet trend.

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Enter mukbang, pronounced “mook-bong,” which started trending in South Korea in 2010. There, the word has a very literal meaning. The first part, “muk” comes from “muk-ja,” which means “eating.” Meanwhile, they get “bang” by shortening “bang-song,” the Korean word for “broadcasting.” So “eating broadcasting” — that may give you an idea of what mukbang is.

If you search for mukbang videos on YouTube, you’ll find the same formula: a person sits down in front of the camera and eats a large meal while the internet looks on. Canadian food blogger Simon Stawski lived in South Korea as the trend became started to take off. He explained why it caught on so quickly to TODAY Food in 2018, and it all comes down to the country’s dining culture.

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Stawski explained, “In Korea, it’s not common for people to go out to eat by themselves. Dining is a social activity, and you don’t sit and eat alone. For those that can’t eat with others, they’ll more than likely stay home to eat alone, but they’ll still have the urge to socialize while eating, which is what I think mukbangers replicate.”

So, mukbang helped solo diners feel less lonely as they ate their own meals. But that’s not the only reason that people started tuning into these videos. Others have admitted that watching others eat large quantities of food helped repair their relationships with food and improve their eating issues. 

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Specifically, some viewers who have dealt with anorexia and other eating disorders find it helpful to watch mukbang clips online. They see that others can — and do — eat hearty portions of food. As such, they say that they have come to realize that they, too, can be comfortable eating more.

Another reason why people regularly tune into mukbang videos is because they often have an ASMR component to them, too. ASMR is an acronym for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” and those who experience it find pleasure in hearing everyday sounds. Sometimes, it’s can be something as simple as whispering or just folding clean clothes that creates a pleasant feeling — typically a tingling sensation that begins on the scalp and runs down the back of the neck.

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A great number of ASMR videos feature someone who’s eating. Now, when you eat, you probably try to minimize the sounds of your chewing, slurping and crunching your food. But to spark those pleasing sensations in those who experience ASMR, the YouTubers actually amplify the sounds of themselves chowing down.

One food-centric ASMR fan, Sammy Bosch, explained why she tuned in — it was equal parts hypnotizing and stress-relieving. She told TODAY in 2018, “While watching others eat rich food you can fantasize that you are eating it. For me, I associate food with pleasure. So, watching these videos makes me feel happy.”

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Even with all of the benefits of mukbang, the U.S. didn’t catch on to the trend until five years after South Korea. In 2015 Fine Brothers Entertainment gathered a crew of YouTube stars to watch the videos featuring Korea’s most famous online eaters. It was that video that first sparked Americans’ interest in the genre.

Soon enough, American content creators noticed that the Korean videos had grabbed people’s attention. So they, too, started creating mukbang clips — with a few big differences. After all, American meals often look a lot different than the typical day-to-day diet that people in South Korea might broadcast themselves enjoying.

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For one thing, American mukbangers chow down on a range of foods, often doing so as part of a themed challenge. They might feast on plates of rare fare, such as alligator, or foreign food, such as tropical fruit or ramen. Their Korean counterparts, on the other hand, stick to their country’s traditional cuisine. 

That’s not the only way that American mukbang content differs, though. Korean broadcasters tend to livestream their meals so that those who tune in can feel like they’re really eating across the table from someone else because, well, they are. The U.S. scene revolves around pre-recorded videos, although they tend to be chattier than those mukbanging overseas. 

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These conversations tend to create a feeling of closeness between the viewer and the American mukbangers. Perhaps that’s why some of the top U.S. creators have built followings of hundreds of thousands — even millions! — of people. With so many subscribers, they’ve found a way to make mukbanging into a lucrative career. 

South Korean mukbangers can make up to $10,000 each month, and American content creators aren’t that far behind. Some have earned partnerships with food-delivery services or restaurants to feature their foods, for example. And these deals can help them to earn six-figure sums every year.

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Of course, it’s not just about racking up followers and sponsorships, though — it’s also about keeping them. Mukbanger Erik Lamkin has 1.44 million YouTube subscribers as of January 2021. To keep them, he has to make his content exciting, and that means that he eats more than just a regular meal on camera.

Lamkin’s YouTube channel revolves around him eating huge amounts of food on camera. He described the wildest meal he ever ate on camera, to TODAY in 2018. “The most outrageous thing I’ve ever eaten in one sitting [was] a 12-pound burger, now called the ‘Lamkinator’ that I had named after me after completing it in a restaurant here in San Diego,” he said.

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Another clip on his channel, titled “The 100,000 calorie challenge,” saw Lamkin taking in that many calories over a 100-hour span. The YouTube description states, “Doughnuts, Nutella, Pizza, Peanut Butter, Chocolate… every food group makes an appearance in this video!” That type of experiment clearly resonated with his fans — the footage has racked up more than 11.5 million views.

And therein lies one of the many problems that many experts have with the mukbang trend. For starters, YouTubers like Lamkin make a point to down a bevy of unhealthy foods in one sitting. This overloads their bodies with an excess of calories, as well as a high amount of saturated fat.

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Dietician Theresa Kinsella went through the long-term side effects that mukbangers may experience to The New York Times. Weight gain, diabetes and heart disease make the list. On top of that, she said, “The short-term health risks are physical discomfort, gastrointestinal distress, lethargy and fatigue.”  

Mukbanger Nicokado Avocado has confirmed that he experienced such unsavory side effects after downing extra-large plates of food. Not only did he find himself sick after eating, but he admitted to crying sometimes from the pain he experienced. Avocado’s weight has ballooned from 140 to 220 pounds since embarking on his internet-eating career, too.

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On top of that, some watchers used mukbangs as a roundabout way to maintain their healthy lifestyles. Registered dietician Erin Palinski-Wade told TODAY, “Some viewers report they watch these videos as a way to satisfy their own food cravings to help them stay on track with their weight loss plans.”

But tuning into mukbang isn’t the same as eating something that you crave. Instead, viewers watch someone else eat plates and plates of food — and this can have an adverse affect on them. Palinski-Wade explained, “The nature of mukbang videos can trigger disordered eating patterns in susceptible viewers.”

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Mukbangs may pose a particular problem for those who deal with bulimia and binge-eating disorder. That’s because these clips show — and even glorify — the act of overeating. This sort of behavior would normally take place behind closed doors, but the promise of more followers in exchange for bingeing on camera actually incentivizes gluttony. 

That’s precisely why the experts from Beat, the U.K.’s leading charity for those affected by eating disorders, said that those who had dealt with or continued to manage disorders should regard mukbang with extreme caution. The organization’s clinical advisor, Dr. Richard Sly, gave his best advice to metro.co.uk in 2017. 

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Sly said, “Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, and while they manifest in disordered behavior around eating, the way the sufferer treats food is less important than the thoughts and feelings that influence their behavior.” And that’s why tuning into mukbang videos could make matters worse.

Sly went on to say, “We would be concerned that watching a large amount of food being consumed may be triggering to individuals with eating disorders or who are susceptible to developing one, where the eating disorder involves restricting food intake, but also where binge eating is a factor.” Most importantly, though, Sly advised anyone with a disorder to reach out to someone they trusted for help.

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Beyond the health implications, there’s also the fact that mukbanging ends up wasting a ton of resources. Keep in mind that men in their 30s need only about 2,200 calories per day. Women who exercise can handle the same amount, while those with more sedentary lifestyles only require 1,600 calories to keep them going through a day.

When China’s president Xi Jinping called upon his people to “fight against food waste,” in August 2020, he effectively declared war on mukbang. Indeed, China’s massive population have struggled with food shortages — especially during the pandemic. And so, in an effort to safeguard their food stocks, their state media channels began a campaign disparaging mukbangers. 

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So, Chinese viewers started to see warnings before they could click on to watch any mukbang live streams or web shows. These pop-ups implored the public to, “Cherish food, refuse to waste, eat properly and have a healthy life.” Some mukbangers even began making waste-free videos, inspiring their audience to eat leftovers, for example. 

The government crackdown didn’t end there, though. Eventually, mukbanging videos were blurred out online, and those who had uploaded them in the past were deemed wasteful and even vulgar on social media. In early 2021, the clips became completely illegal in China as part of President Jinping’s battle against waste. But it would be a mistake to demonize the entire online mukbang community.

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Originally, traditional mukbang videos were meant to create a sense of community and closeness for people who have no choice but to eat alone. So, although the craze has morphed into many an extreme eating challenge, perhaps the initial idea wasn’t a bad one — at least it certainly wasn’t a danger to anyone’s health.

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