Does Watching Eating Videos Make Us Gain Weight? Investigating the changing habits of mukbang viewers

By Alicia Khiem, Anni Koppelomäki, Marta Villerus, Pierre Louafi, Zita Budaházy

April 7, 2020

University of Amsterdam

What is Mukbang?

YouTuber DoNam has one of the most viewed mukbang channels among South Korean audiences with over 900K subscribers.

In the 15 years since its founding, YouTube has been used to upload consistent and often surprising or even odd videos, which then got popularized by its users. One craze that has been ongoing on the platform for almost a decade is mukbang – a trend originating in South Korea, in which YouTubers (or BJs - Broadcast Jockeys) live-stream themselves eating copious amounts of food in one sitting.  The term is a combination of two Korean words – muok-da (eating) and bang song (broadcast), – and mukbang videos are often accompanied with ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) sounds of the person chewing, slurping, and making other “satisfying” eating noises. The supposed original intention of mukbang was to eliminate the sense of loneliness experienced by people who usually eat alone: the person could instead turn on a video of their favourite mukbang, and feel that they are dining in the company of a friend. It is clear that it is a very prominent trend, given that the eating culture there, as in most of Asia, is inherently social.  However, despite the traditional eating culture in Korea, the numbers of those eating alone have also risen. Koreans call solo-dining behaviour ‘honbap’ (“hon” – alone, “bap” – meal). This trend appeared with an increase of single-person households, which reached about 30% of the total population in 2019. Plus, the majority of video streaming happens through smartphones, allowing users to tune in anytime, anywhere. With this media ubiquity, mukbang content creators are bound to earn thousands from their broadcasts.

Over time, mukbang videos were repurposed and their original intent has changed. Nevertheless, the popularity of mukbang videos hasn’t decreased. Now, mukbang culture dominates on various social media platforms, especially on YouTube. Although these types of videos are usually seen as simply entertaining, researches reveal that they may also be viewed in a negative way. Despite their entertaining and funny presence, the mukbang videos have faced a lot of controversies, concerning cultural appropriation and eating disorder problems. From previous investigations there was a source that claimed that the Korean government plans to place regulations on mukbang content as they deem it a part of “promoting unhealthy eating habits”.  Studies have shown that obesity rates in Korea will rise drastically by 2022 and that mukbang culture could be playing a role in this increase.

Many mukbangs – like this one by Stephanie Soo - feature fast foods, unhealthy fried and sweet foods, as well as huge portion sizes.

But, despite the negative reception, could the Korean government be on the right track? Some studies on the effects of media on public health showed that exposure to food online – like watching mukbang videos – do indeed affect viewers’ food choices and consumption, especially among younger audiences, for whom BJs are influencers. Moreover, one research study performed a detailed analysis of the content of thousands of mukbang videos and articles, demonstrating that many eating broadcasts showed binge- and overeating, and received a higher number of views because of that. Research on “food-porn” indicates that some individuals may be more likely to engage in cue-induced eating when exposed to an appealing food, which also suggests that an increased attention to food cues may contribute to overeating and weight gain.

In the media overall, many articles seem to give a positive image of mukbang to audiences, using certain ways of framing to almost promote mukbang to the general public. If this is true, it is not surprising that the Korean government sees it necessary to impose guidelines on mukbang media. Because eating broadcasts place mostly unhealthy, highly processed food in the spotlight, some highly susceptible viewers might change their eating habits to match those of the mukbang creators themselves. Viewers may either experience second-hand satisfaction from eating vicariously through mukbang, or have actual impulses to eat while watching. We interviewed several mukbang enthusiasts in their late teens and early twenties to see whether they have indeed started eating differently or more after being exposed to mukbang culture. A few respondents mentioned that watching mukbang would “trigger cravings [they] didn’t even know [they] had”, and one said that he began to eat more foods in unlimited buffets. One viewer admitted that mukbang negatively impacted her eating habits by prompting her to eat larger portions, which she began to perceive as a normal amount, and this resulted in weight gain.

Increasing Obesity Rates?

Global obesity has been said to be a result of numerous things, one of which being the growth of binge eating culture through content creation like mukbang. According to the World Health Organization, global obesity rates have nearly tripled since the 1980s. This has been argued to be a result of a number of factors, from increasingly globalized trade markets and the growing exchange of global culture. Furthermore, WHO has equated the rise in obesity and overweight statistics globally to the increase of foods high in calories and sugar content mass produced and sold cheap around the world. This can be allocated to the growing tendency of food production companies to opt for high output methods of food growth. This inevitably results in a lower quality product that retains more sugar content, and more calories. These foods include mass farmed protein sources, as well as greenhouse grown vegetables injected with preservatives and growth enzymes that increase output and thus economic return for the companies.

South Korea is no different in the respect of growing obesity rates. Korean statistics on the matter reflect that all age groups, except citizens aged between 19 and 29 years, have a 35-40% obesity rate in the country as of 2018. This is consistent with the data offered by the World Health Organization, and is suggested to also have increased over a number of years. However, mukbang emergence is not explicitly said to have had a major impact on this trend. On the other hand, the more explicitly agreed upon effect that mukbang content has on eating trends is simply that it encourages viewers to eat alone, as it provides a sense of company despite the virtual nature of said company.

Mukbang Controversies

What was absolutely unexpected in our research is the discovery that several of the most-viewed mukbang videos on YouTube were created by and featuring young children, as we found out through YouTube Data Tools. It was nearly impossible to find an explanation for this occurrence in any existing articles online, so we can only assume that there may be some disturbing reasons behind these particular videos’ popularity. However, most mukbang viewers we interviewed were entirely unaware of mukbang made by children, while those who were, mentioned that they would not watch kids’ videos because children are immature, and young mukbangers “take baby bites” and tend to not “eat anything other than candy or fast food”. One responder expressed that she feels supportive of them for doing something they enjoy.

Milana FamilyShow channel has almost 3 million subscribers on YouTube and has mukbang videos featuring other kids. This screenshot is taken from the video that is in the top 10 viewed mukbang videos in South Korea.

But do young content creators truly like filming these videos, and do so of their own accord? An article on Korean popular news site AllKpop discussed a YouTube channel that posted a mukbang video of six-year-old twins eating a giant boiled octopus. While the video came under fire for releasing inappropriate content, some viewers disagreed with the criticisms and assumed that the parents may just be having fun with their kids. The parents later responded to the comments and deleted the video. Instances like this suggest that it is not impossible that some parents may be forcing their children to participate in extreme activities to get more views (and more income), because would a six-year-old really come up with the idea to chew on a giant octopus on their own? Not only could it be child exploitation, but it could also pose alarming health risks to kids eating the types and amounts of food usually portrayed in mukbang videos.

TwinRoozi 쌍둥이 루지 channel is one of the most popular children’s mukbang channels on YouTube and has the most viewed videos within ‘mukbang’ search query.

One of the interviewees agreed with our assumption that it is not appropriate for kids to do eating broadcasts, as it “may affect their diet and growth”. For a professional insight, we consulted with Jia Jiet Lim, a nutrition expert who is currently pursuing a PhD in Human Nutrition. He was likewise shocked about these findings, and remarked that it is particularly alarming as children “have little idea about the dangers of overeating and how best to take care of themselves.” This is their parents’ responsibility – and parents can very likely be the driving force behind child mukbang in the first place. Additionally, if the audience of kids’ mukbang are other children, “they are likely to mimic their peers, as mimicking is the one thing that children are good at,” says Lim, supporting the evidence of younger viewers’ susceptibility to imitating influencers’ behaviors.

Regardless of age, though, regularly creating eating broadcasts as a full-time job may pose numerous health risks to mukbang hosts. There are no actual long-term studies on BJs specifically, and no conceivable evidence of the actual health damage of mukbang, but it is likely that most mukbang creators are aware of the possible health implications. “Generally, eating too many calories at once may cause the failure of the body to maintain a healthy blood glucose level, which is a short term effect,” says Lim, “but it is not known how bouts of overeating and fasting may affect health, as adverse health consequences can take 5 to 10 years to manifest.” Some potential long-term health consequences of doing mukbang consistently are “increased blood pressure, increased triglycerides, increased blood glucose and a1C levels, and a decrease in HDL cholesterol,” according to a dietician mentioned in this Insider article, but it may be possible to make up for this eating behavior by adjusting one’s regular diet. Korean mukbang host Banzz has adapted to his job as a BJ, by eating bland food off-camera and exercising daily for several hours, which may seem a little excessive – but so is mukbang itself. Others, like Mina Oh, have been known for being mukbang YouTubers in the past, but made the decision to quit after experiencing negative health effects.

Have the restrictions proposed by the South Korean government actually influenced mukbang viewing habits?

We used YouTube Data Tools when gathering our data, which was created by Bernhard Rieder as a part of the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. We started our data collection using the ‘Video Network’ – module to extract a list of the top 50 most viewed videos. Our search query word was ‘mukbang’ and we used South Korea as the location. We manually chose five channels, where the creators are above the age of 18 and create mainly mukbang content. Additionally, we checked that the channels were created before July 2018 – the starting point of our time frame for this research.

We individually completed a Video List -search on YouTube Data Tools for each of the five channels and analysed the content of them by looking into average views, as well as average likes and dislikes. For this dataset, we first got data for a larger period of time but ended up focusing on time right before and after the legislation proposal, meaning July to September 2018.

We looked at five chosen channels separately and discovered that four of them experienced a decrease in view count around July and August 2018. However, it wasn’t the case for the fifth channel. For all 5 channels, we looked at all the videos posted in July, August and September 2018 to make sure that our dataset includes only mukbang related videos, however, we could not access these videos for the fifth channel, possibly because they were deleted after we extracted the data.

Below, you can see the trend graphs for each channel. The trend graphs show the average view count per channel per month. On the graphs, we can see that four out of five channels experienced a decrease in their view count around July and August. Just around the time when Korean Government proposed new regulations for the mukbang content on YouTube.

          

           

On the first graph, representing data from the Donam도남이먹방 channel, we see that the view count dropped in August, but it went up again in September. The graph for JaeYeol ASMR 재열 channel shows a decrease in views in both August and September 2018. The third graph shows that Stephanie Soo channel has also experienced a decrease in views in August, but then recovered in September. The fourth graph represents the data from the 럭키강이 LuckyKang i channel and it also shows a decrease in view count in both August and September. The fifth, SIO ASMR channel, however, experienced a slight rise in the view count from July to August but then had a decrease in views in September. But as mentioned before, we were not able to check whether all content in that period of time was mukbang related. Therefore, we are not able to state whether it has any correlation with the government’s proposed restrictions.

The data analysis and visualizations, so far, have shown that the government’s proposed restrictions may have affected mukbang culture, as YouTubers got fewer views in the months following the statement. However, the view count could be affected by a number of other reasons. For example, if YouTuber’s uploaded fewer videos than in the previous months or maybe they were less active in promoting their channels. Therefore,  by looking only at the view count we cannot certainly claim that there was a change in the viewers’ behaviour.

To support our previous finding, we went further with our data analysis to discover whether mukbang viewers’ engagement with the videos has also changed, and for that, we looked at the likes and dislikes each channel received in July, August, and September 2018. For each of the five channels, we calculated the average of likes and the average of dislikes, and this was done for each month separately.

The Donam도남이먹방, JaeYeol ASMR 재열, and 럭키강이 LuckyKang i channels have all received overall less engagement in August 2018 in terms of likes and dislikes. Moreover, both the average of likes and the average of dislikes in August 2018 was lower than in July 2018 for all of the three channels. Below are the visualizations portraying this decrease.

           

The goal of our investigation was mainly to find out how mukbang viewing behaviour in South Korea has changed after the proposed regulations. The short answer is no, it has not changed. As seen in the graphs, there were some minor changes in some of the channel’s views, but nothing that stood out. It would be incredibly biased to assume that mukbang viewing is the direct cause of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and various eating disorders. Any correlations between observed health issues and mukbang viewing behavior do not necessarily mean causation. However, the possible effects are subjective. Even from our interviews, we got mixed answers on eating habits changing for both better and worse. If one does not experience any negative effects from these videos, it is highly unlikely they will stop viewing them because of one legislation proposal. The picture these videos paint of people’s relationships with eating and food in general, is also a very individual experience. No person (or mukbang video) is alike.

Of course, the method used in this study has its limitations, and does not provide a clear-cut answer to the question. Viewing behavior was observed on only five of the countless mukbang channels on YouTube, and it would be a lot more accurate to use a larger number of subjects. Actually observing mukbang enthusiasts or BJs throughout a duration of several years, and comparing them to a control group that does not create or watch mukbang, could provide more reliable results. It might become more apparent, then, if certain health problems could develop as a direct consequence of engaging with mukbang. In short, more evidence is needed to prove any negative consequences of mukbang viewing.

The Future of Mukbang

Erik Lamkin, 26 years old, American YouTuber with more than a million subscribers is very popular with his mukbang videos. This one is called ‘THE ULTIMATE FAST FOOD THANKSGIVING CHEAT DAY! (25,000+ CALORIES)’.

Seemingly there were good intentions behind the legislation proposal, but none of these concerns affected the way in which South Korean viewers consume mukbang-content. The South Korean government’s approach could also be tailored to be more adaptable to citizens, rather than being a full-on restriction. “Mukbang hosts are influencers, so why not collaborate with them to introduce a healthy style of eating rather than promoting an unhealthy one,” suggests Lim. Mukbang has also become highly popular in circles of American YouTubers and audiences, with many content creators and even celebrities jumping on the bandwagon. Although it originated in South Korea, we can see how mukbang culture has spread globally over the years, and many YouTube users from different parts of the world find it appealing. Perhaps, for this reason, the restrictions on mukbang content should not only be made within specific regions, but rather on a global scale. Since YouTube is the most popular video service for mukbang content, as a platform they could take responsibility to regulate it. Options such as age-limit and trigger warnings could be taken into consideration for that.

Finally, we believe that fully restricting mukbang content would be unfair to both the creators and the audiences that enjoy watching it. However, some sort of responsibility from mukbang enthusiasts could lead to more positive experiences for people watching them. Perhaps, if mukbang creators would be more transparent with their audiences, it could create a safer environment for the viewers.

Posted in Data Journalism 2020