When you think of ‘healthy eating’ what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Is it the image of a platter of raw fruits and vegetables? Maybe someone struggling to follow a restrictive diet? What if that first thing to pop into your head was the image of someone taking their time to purposively and slowly enjoy a nice meal?
Of course when we are trying to eat healthier, it is important that we monitor what it is we are eating, and how much. But very rarely do we consider the way in which we eat. Whether we’re eating with others or alone. Whether we’re doing some other leisure activity whilst eating. Whether we are rushing our food or taking our time. Do any of these aspects play into eating healthily? I believe so.
The answers are definitely out there. More and more we are recognising the role of the behaviour of eating on our health, in the literature and in the public conscience. Mindfulness, and it’s applications to healthy eating, has exploded in popularity within self-help materials and workshops. Many of us know in our daily lives how cultural events like Christmas tend to lead to overeating. There is also a big body of work on how social forces play into what we choose to eat, and how much. On a smaller scale, researchers are aware of how things like social modelling can lead us to eat more in the presence of others, and make unhealthier food choices.
This is where I come in. As part of my MSc in Health Psychology I was tasked with conducting a research project to be written up as my final thesis. Being the foody I am, I had to do something around eating behaviour, and ended up looking into the unusual world of MukBang. For those unaware, MukBang is an internet phenomenon that originated in South Korea, but has quickly taken the digital world by storm, where individuals video record or live-stream themselves eating various and vast amounts of food. From an academic standpoint it is utterly fascinating!
What I did not expect is what I was to find by including MukBang in my research. Gathering small focus groups of participants, I interviewed them on their eating habits, their views about eating socially (i.e. commensality), and how that plays into their health and wellbeing. I then introduced a compilation of MukBang clips, which was followed by further questioning about their thoughts on the videos.
As you can expect there were mixed reactions. Some were equally as fascinated, others disgusted at the sight of it. But a commonality I was not prepared for is the commentary most participants began to make about how these individuals on camera were eating, how they themselves were eating, and the thought of how we eat impacting our health. Some interesting quotes from the research:
“Yeah apart from the portion size I was a bit concerned with- there’s that one video where she was, you know, speed eating… It’s not very good for your digestive system”
“Because everything was such a big portion size, and had so many calories, and with eating really fast”
“Rather than how much can you eat, all at once, and how unhealthy is it. Which is kind of what I took away from that watching it so, yeah”
Only after showing MukBang clips did participants begin to move away from a binary way of thinking about healthy eating (i.e. quality and quantity of food), to a more holistic perspective that incorporated our behaviours around eating itself. I believe there is something more concrete there, which warrants further exploration and focus.
Purely from my own speculation, I feel that we have an innate sense that the eating of food should be a sacred practice that we need to cultivate. Eating and sharing food with others is the corner stone to any culture. Of course in a very primal sense we need food to simply survive, and priority should still be put on helping people to make healthier food choices, avoiding unhealthy foods, and managing the portions they consume at any given time. But by incorporating a better behaviour around our food, by finding enjoyment in preparing a meal, and taking the time to be present with our food, we will form a healthier relationship with our diet in general.
Mindful eating practices are a good way to go, but being meditative about every piece of food we eat in a day is clearly not practical. There is something to be said however about avoiding the all too common thing of rushing down some sustenance for the sake of getting to work or school quicker, or because your busy during the day and want to get it over as soon as possible. Strive to be efficient, but sacrificing your diet in the name of efficiency is not a healthy way to live.
In the spirit of supporting open-source materials, and for the sake of all you academics out there, I am sharing my work so that it may help inspire further research in this area. At the time this look into MukBang was novel, though I am aware that more research in this area has been done since then. Also, as this has yet to be published in any formal journal, please consider this to be grey literature (i.e. a material shared outside of academic publishing and distribution channels) in any reviews you conduct. Please find this below.
For everyone else simply trying to eat healthier, I suggest taking the time to really connect with the food your eating. And if that makes you uncomfortable, maybe reflect on why that is…
For the Psychologists…