Evolution of eating contests

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One sandwich down, one more to go. It seems like a simple enough challenge.  What’s a little sandwich to a 22-year-old college sophomore?

If only the sandwich were truly little. The two 8-inch sandwiches filled with six different meats plus the other typical sandwich toppings is a tad more intimidating than a typical trip to the sub shop.

With only 10 minutes to down these gigantic subs Spencer Bowen, a BYU student who enjoys lifting at the gym, is feeling confident half way through his eating challenge, but as he moves into the second sandwich his confidence wavers.

“I had the first one down easily before half time,” Bowen said.

As the clock winds down, the cheering workers behind the counter drag out a garbage can “just in case” and Bowen tries once more shoving the remaining part of his sandwich in his mouth before the seconds run out.

Time’s up. Admitting defeat, Bowen throws the remaining one inch of his sandwich on the table.

The “Manwich Challenge” at Jimmy John’s Subs is just one of many food challenges available in the Utah. For years, county fairs have held hot dog and pie eating contests to see who could best the food.

In 2008, Adam Richman premiered on his food reality television show, “Man v. Food,” on the Travel Channel. Richman travels across America taking on extreme eating challenges created by local restaurants.

Today, television shows, like “Man v. Food,” inspire restaurants and adolescents to create their own eating challenges; thus, the evolution of eating contests. America’s indulgent society paved a path for eating challenges as did their social appeal and entertainment factor.

Food challenges come in many shapes and forms, limited only to the creativity of the participant. While some restaurants have official, exotic items listed on their menus as a restaurant challenge, such as at Jimmy John’s Subs, other challenges are created when friends get together at fast food restaurants.

One of these customer created fast food challenges is known as the “Value Menu/Dollar Menu Challenge.” Ordering everything listed on the value menu at a fast food restaurant, the contestant attempts to eat the meal as fast as possible.

Josh Hawkins, a sophomore from Spokane, Wash., took the challenge at Wendy’s, Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King and finished all four of his over-sized meals.

“We tried to strategize going about eating it,”  Hawkins said.  “It’s just fun to see if you can actually eat that.”

Hawkins did his research beforehand. After participating in his first food challenge at Wendy’s, Hawkins went home and calculated the eight-piece meal. It contained 2,130 calories, 78 grams of fat and 86 grams of protein.

This was nothing compared to his later night time adventures to Taco Bell where 10 pieces was 2,920 calories. His meal at McDonalds included 12 pieces for 3,060 calories. And his meal at Burger King was 13 pieces and more than 4,000 calories.

“I watch ‘Man v. Food’ and this is kind of a nice alternative,” Hawkins said. “That’s kind of the inspiration.”

Eating challenges, however, are not new, but are part of old American traditions. Dating back to July 4, 1916, four immigrants participated in a hot dog eating competition to prove who was the most patriotic. Also, there are the old-fashioned county fair pie eating competitions.

In fact, eating competitions on the official level have become so popular there is now a professional group called Major League Eating. The MLE made eating contests serious business, but today’s casual challenges aren’t quite as strict and are more for entertainment.

According to Lora Beth Brown, BYU assistant professor of nutrition, said food helps define culture as well as holds many social aspects outside of its nutritional value.

“Food creates bonds between people,” Brown said.

Appealing to the adventure and entertainment side of life, food challenges create another activity for adolescents or anyone daring to put their stomachs up to the challenge.

“It (eating challenges) combines a few things adolescents love:  competition, things that are cheap and french fries,”  said Sarah Coyne, professor of family life at BYU.

While there are always exceptions, America is one of the most indulgent societies.

“I doubt there would be that type of competition anywhere where food is scarce,” Brown said. “There’s an abundance of food here. It’s cheap and readily available.”

Pauline Williams, BYU assistant teaching professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science said although eating these huge meals can make you sick, it doesn’t necessarily contribute to obesity in American society.

“For most people, our stomachs are about the size of their fist,” she said. “Your body’s not designed to eat the enormous amounts of foods in these challenges.”

Although these competitions may not be the most comfortable or natural activity for free time, they appeal to adolescents for the entertainment factor. As far as these challenges sticking around, that is only for the participants to decide.

As for Bowen, it is only a matter of what type of motivation there will be whether or not he’ll take on the Manwich Challenge again.

“I’m always hungry,” Bowen said. “If I were going there to get my stomach happy, I would not do that ever again.”

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