The Allure of Eating Challenges

Courtesy of Randy Santel
What drives a person to eat an 11-pound pizza? By Juno DeMelo

Randy Santel is the anti-Jared. When he worked at Subway as a teenager, he would regularly eat three double-meat foot-longs during a six-hour shift to pack on weight as a football lineman.

Santel is a competitive eater with 481 wins. He used to be heavy, but he slimmed down after college, getting so ripped he won a national body-transformation contest that earned him a guest spot on the TV show Spartacus. To celebrate, he and a friend downed a 28-inch, 11-pound pizza in under an hour, his first food challenge. “I wasn’t even that full afterward,” he says. “An hour or two later I had dinner with my family, then ice cream.”

Such is the appetite of the men—and it is almost exclusively men—who wolf down grotesque amounts of restaurant food in hopes of getting it comped. They often also get prize money, a T-shirt, their picture taken, and traffic to the sites where they post videos of their exploits. Those who are serious about it train by stretching their stomachs with, say, 15 pounds of watermelon. Those who aren’t end up immortalized on the losers’ wall, or worse: Last year, a man in Portland, Oregon, choked to death trying to eat a half-pound glazed doughnut in 80 seconds or less.

What motivates them to pig out? When I ask competitive eater Ryan Rodacker, aka Max Carnage, he mentions the word “free” in relation to food nearly a dozen times in half an hour. In fact, he tells me that when a restaurant tried to stiff him with gift cards instead of a refund for the cost of the giant burger they didn’t figure he could finish, he threatened to call the cops.

Courtesy of Big Eaters Club

He also claims that big eaters just really love food and are missing the chip that makes it uncomfortable to overeat. “Most of us have a food we love, like bacon or chocolate, but after eating a pound of it, you’re probably done no matter how good it tastes, because your body is going, no no no,” he says. “The people that enter these challenges can keep going and not get too full.”

Kima Cargill, Ph.D., the author of The Psychology of Overeating, has a hard time believing big eaters don’t feel at least some discomfort, but she sees it as part of the appeal. “They clearly view themselves as athletes, and it’s a physical victory,” she says. “It seems they equate being full with the sore knees and blisters that runners get training for a marathon.”

Cargill also believes that competitive eating is the orgiastic culmination of food porn, a type of hedonistic, primitive impulse most of us keep in check. “A lot of people fantasize about sexual promiscuity or eating 12 pies, but in reality, it becomes kind of gross,” she says. (Rodacker admits that servers have made disgusted faces at him, though that’s not the norm.)

And then there’s the free food. Cargill points out that the two newest disorders added to the latest update of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders in 2012 were hoarding disorder and binge eating. Man V. Food, in which Adam Richman took on food challenges in a different city each episode, went off the air in 2012, but now we have Ginormous Food, not to mention Storage Wars, Hoarders, and Extreme Couponing. As Cargill explains it, there’s something culturally intoxicating about obtaining a whole bunch of stuff, especially if you can get it at a great price.

Santel estimates that he’s eaten $20,000 worth of free food since 2010, but the gravy train will pull into the station soon. Though it seems antithetical, Santel is in school to become a registered dietitian. Last summer he gained 55 pounds during a two-and-a-half-month tour, then lost that weight plus 11 more pounds during his first semester. It’s a grueling yo-yo regime he plans to give up when he graduates in three years and starts taking on clients.

“My buddy once explained big eating best: He enjoys doing it, and he’ll keep on doing it until he finds something better to do,” says Santel. “By 2020, I’ll have 600 wins in 30 countries and 50 states. I can die knowing no one will come close to my record.”

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