Evolution of eating contests

By Rebecca Lane

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 16 2011 5:55 a.m. MST

BYU students Josh Hawkins, Jessica Hawkins and Stuart Bevan take on the "Value Menu Challenge" at Burger King.

Rebecca Lane

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One sandwich down, one more to go.

It seemed 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 were a tad more intimidating than your typical trip to the sub shop.

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

"I had the first one down easily before halftime," Bowen said.

As the clock wound down, the cheering workers behind the counter dragged out a garbage can just in case Bowen tried once more shoving the remaining part of his sandwich in his mouth before the seconds ran out.

Times up! Admitting defeat, Bowen threw 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 Utah. For years, county fairs have held hot dog and pie eating contests to see who could best the food. Today, television shows such as "Man v. Food" inspire restaurants and adolescents to create their own eating challenges.

In 2008, Adam Richman had the premier of 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.

Food challenges come in many shapes and forms, limited only by the creativity of the participant. While some restaurant 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 oversized meals.

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

After participating in his first food challenge at Wendy's, Hawkins went home and calculated that his eight-piece meal contained 2,130 calories, 78 grams of fat and 86 grams of protein. This was nothing compared to his later adventures at Taco Bell (10 pieces for 2,920 calories), McDonalds (12 pieces for 3,060 calories) nor Burger King (13 pieces and over 4,000 calories.)

"I watch 'Man v. Food,' and this is kind of a nice alternative," said Hawkins. "That's kind of the inspiration."

Eating challenges, however, are not new but are part of old American traditions. On July 4, 1916, four immigrants participated in a hot dog eating competition to prove who was the most patriotic.

Eating competitions on the official level have become so popular that there is now a professional group called Major League Eating. The group has 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 in the department of nutrition, dietetics and food science, food helps define culture as well as holding 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," said Brown. "There's an abundance of food here. It's cheap and readily available."

Although eating these huge meals can make you sick, it doesn't necessarily contribute to obesity in American society, says Pauline Williams, an assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at BYU.

"For most people, our stomachs are about the size of their fist," said Williams. "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 will be there 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."

Rebecca Lane is a print journalism student at Brigham Young University.

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