A couple sit together for breakfast, their plates piled high with vegan sausages, broccoli and rice, what they consider a typically vegan meal.
Like any couple, they talk about the day they have ahead, but what’s strange in this scenario is that anyone online can watch them eat all this food, because they’re sharing this moment — and many other eating moments — on YouTube.
In between mouthfuls, the couple, Georgie and Darren Spindler, describe how they cooked their meal and explain why they opt for a vegan diet. The pair, who live in the UK, are fitness and nutrition coaches known for their Vegan Fitness website.
But the Spindlers are also part of a new “social eating” online movement known as mukbang, in which people worldwide share videos of themselves eating large amounts of food on camera and talking about their dietary styles.
The movement began in South Korea, where the word mukbang means “eating broadcasts,” describing the popular practice of indulging in excessively large meals on camera. The trend kicked off in 2014 but has since spread worldwide.
Now, there are more than 750 videos showcasing the habit. Half use the words “vegan” or “healthy” in their titles; the Spindlers form part of this subgroup.
The couple initially thought the mukbang trend was odd but decided to try it and discovered it fit right into their busy schedule.
“Mukbangs seem to help people connect with each other in busier times. We live in a time where it’s hard to find time to sit down and eat with other people,” Darren Spindler said.
They believe that their mukbangs have brought them closer to their audience.
“Daily videos allow you to create a deep connection and dialogues that follow through,” Georgie Spindler said. “We are in a journey together; above all, we share our meals on camera to inspire others.”
Promoting a vegan diet
“It definitely helps with promoting veganism and healthy eating,” Darren Spindler added. “It shows a raw and unedited image of our lifestyles, which starts normalizing it. People often ask themselves, ‘What on earth would I eat on a vegan lifestyle?’ We show them that it is doable.”
Jasmine Briones of Sweet Simple Vegan also started filming herself eating vegan meals to raise awareness of her lifestyle.
“Mukbangs are great. It is like your audience is sitting down and eating a meal with you, with a conversation. Eating is a very social act, and to bring it onto YouTube is genius. It is doing wonders for veganism,” Briones said.
Peri Bradley, editor of the book “Food, Media and Contemporary Culture: The Edible Image,” also says that eating broadcasts focused on specific dietary habits have the potential to affect viewers’ daily habits.
“The viewing of others enjoying ‘healthy’ vegetarian or vegan dishes certainly influences the way we perceive food, as it is usually accompanied by some sort of dialogue on the health benefits of its consumption, as well as being aesthetically presented in order to make it attractive and desirable,” Bradley said.
Why eat in front of the world?
For Yelena Mejova, a scientist from Qatar Computing Research Institute, whose research focuses on the relationship between real-world activities and the social web (PDF), the rise of mukbangs worldwide is natural.
“Food is international and a topic that everyone can relate to. It is a huge part of our culture, and as humans, we always want the richer media experience that is as closer to real life as possible. In the modern world, networks and access to digital material help this,” she said.
“Smaller, emerging trends on healthy eating and veganism are particularly powerful as cultures that follow these lifestyles try to encourage others to join. In the end, it is really about the social connection. Your behavior starts to be very similar to whoever is in your social network and also to people you follow online. We cannot prove a causality, but there is definitely a link,” she added.
One of her fellow digital media researchers, Hamed Haddadi of Queen Mary University of London, said the rise of online eating came from urban isolation in modern times.
“The rise in independent living in the West and smaller families today means that we are eating alone more often, and hence we enjoy sharing our meal and getting approval from friends remotely,” he said.
“There’s also the social approval that users seek by posting ‘healthy’ food in order to project a healthy image of themselves or alternatively by posting high-calorie foods, such as burgers and steaks, to demonstrate confidence and a ‘don’t care’ attitude towards diet,” Haddadi said.
For Haddadi, the focus is firmly on the health front. “Interestingly, healthy labels get the most ‘likes,’ hence the community is leaning towards associations with healthy foods.”