How to eat a burger bigger than your head in one sitting

The other week my YouTube feed proposed a channel of intriguing title: Beard meets food. I am not sure why this was presented to me, but because I deliberately turn off Google’s surveillance systems (insofar as I can), Google’s algorithms keep coming up with a default potpourri of wildly irrelevant offerings. This was one of them. And usually I ignore them. But the title seemed intriguing. It was fronted by a quiet-spoken British guy with an enormous beard. So – risking a barrage of similar videos to follow, thanks to Mr Google – I checked out the video, wondering if it was a food commentary or similar.

Turned out he was a ‘competitive eater’ – that is, somebody who competes with others over the speed and quantity of food they can gollop down. The channel consisted of videos of him taking on ‘food challenges’ offered in pubs and eating establishments. And it appears that Mr Beard – clearly a very nice guy, considerate, thoughtful and smart – has gone into the science of nutrition to ensure he doesn’t do himself a mischief longer-term.

Still, ‘competitive eating’ has never appealed to me, either as an activity or as entertainment. To me it’s in the same league as the ‘chunder mile’ of university capping days – students glop down a lukewarm pie and chug half a litre of beer, sprint 400 metres, repeat the pie/beer circus, sprint another 400 metres, and so on, hoping to reach the finish line before they throw up or drop dead of cardiac arrythmia. Both are a serious risk because the vagus nerve, which inter-connects the autonomous nervous system, gets overstimulated by the speed and scale of eating/drinking coupled with the exertion.

Triple cheesburger by Jpneok, public domain from

What surprises me is the ubiquity of ‘eating challenges’. You don’t have to look far to find them. Up until recently a burger joint right here in NZ offered a ‘Gotham Burger’ – all 2 kg and 8000 calories of it (about three or four days’ worth of food normally). Or there’s this Canadian one involving two giant burgers and a meat-laden poutine.

Then there are competitive eating races. In the US, for instance, there’s the ‘Professional League of Eating Contests‘, whose website tells me that the World Slopper Eating Championship will (a) be held at the Colorado State Fair, and (b) registrations were closed due to ‘capacity’. To me, those things are pretty gross – people stuffing food in without chewing, ending up with the detritus plastered across their faces and all around the table. Not entirely dissimilar to feeding time at a piggery. But obviously a lot of people like them.

Of course all this is a ‘first world’ issue: we’ve solved the historical problem of finding sufficient nutrition and are awash with food. Which is great, but to me, demonstrating an ability to glop down 16,000 calories of loaded fries, mile-high stack burgers and over-sweetened soda faster than 300 other people trying the same thing at the same moment is still incredibly wasteful. The recommended average adult daily calorie intake – daily – is 2,000 to 2,500 which – furthermore – has to be a balanced mix of the right foods.

We also have to remember that western food over-production doesn’t stop a large proportion of the rest of the world being hungry. On average, large parts of Africa, India, Indonesia and northern South America have average daily calorie intakes below 2,390, ie: subsistence or less. Often, less, and made worse by the fact that these same people often have to engage in heavy physical activity. It doesn’t stop people in so-called ‘first world’ nations being hungry either: these days, the extent to which the elites have transferred wealth to themselves is such that even the most prosperous nations have a rising proportion who simply can’t afford to eat properly. For these people, malnutrition amidst our western world of alleged plenty is a very real threat.

So no, I’m not a supporter of ‘competitive eating’ contests. Or ‘chunder miles’. Honestly, people wanting to display a food mega-power would be better to see how many marshmallows they can stuff up their nose (with apologies to The Young Ones).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


10 thoughts on “How to eat a burger bigger than your head in one sitting

  1. Ick…the term ‘insult to injury’ seems appropriate. I’m a self confessed foodie, and the thought of …feeding…like that just grosses me out. Maybe if food shortages hit, we’ll value what we eat a bit more. 😦

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    1. I agree – also I fear it will be ‘when’ food shortages hit – the globalised western system is teetering and it wouldn’t take much to knock it over, taking down food production and distribution with it. That aside, the whole concept of ‘eating races’ is pretty gross at the best of times. I recall one when I was at university circa 1981-82, involving spaghetti that had been cooked with food colouring. It turned into a food fight in which teal blue, pink and lime green spaghetti detritus ended up ground into the concrete, wrapped around pillars, and welded, several floors up, to quadrangle buildings. I think they got it cleaned up with fire hoses.

      The whole issue of food, though, fascinates me in the anthropological sense. For 99.99999% of human existence it’s been a daily struggle to get. Even current cultures are shaped by it in a recent sense: the ritual aspects of Christmas in western British culture, for instance ( until recent generations requiring those of us on this side of the world to stuff ourselves with winter foods in high summer). Or consider the US Thanksgiving menu, similarly ritualised and built around the fact that the first European settlers there in the late 16th century were constantly on the edge of starvation – among other things, creating a deep cultural heritage to the words ‘good and plenty’. Fast-forward to the development of capitalism and suddenly food is not just industrialised but commercialised, down to ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ being not medical advice but an advertising slogan designed to sell more cereal. I can’t help thinking that eating contests – which have undeniable appeal to a pretty large number of people – key in to this whole diaspora, both the long-standing place of food in the human psyche and the advertising/profit motive. I am pretty sure the food joints that offer ‘challenges’ do so because, ultimately, it’s both promotion and profit for them.

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      1. I think the pandemic years have brought home the fragility of our distribution systems. There’s no point having a bumper harvest if you can’t find people to pick the produce. No point picking the produce if the transportation costs of moving that produce cost more than the value of the produce itself. And then there are the supermarkets themselves. They need unpackers and stackers and a plethora of administrative people just to put something on the shelves…. Yeah, food security is not that secure any more.
        My parents lived through a world war and a revolution, and they knew all about food security, or the lack thereof. I never had a hungry day in my life, but I fear that I’ll be learning the lessons my parents knew before I move on to a …-cough-…higher plane.

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  2. I think eating contests are disgusting, and inappropriate when there are many who can’t afford or obtain necessary food. To its shame, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (where I get a lot of my news, via radio) still interviews people who have won such contests. Recent ones feature dudes who can eat super-hot peppers in a short time, which is less gross than those where sheer volume is the objective, but still…

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    1. Those ‘pepper eating’ contests are definitely less gross but, as you say, still more of the same: I can’t see much underlying difference between asserting superiority by resisting the effects of capsisin on the tongue’s TRPV1 pain receptors, and doing so by globbing down unfeasible volumes of diner-style food. Socially and psychologically there’s no real difference: it’s an assertion of place and identity. What intrigues me is the fascination these contests clearly have – they are undeniably popular.

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  3. By coincidence, I’ve watched a bunch of obesity documentaries over the last week. Myself having shifted several stone over the last year and a half to make sure my health is in order.

    Yeah, celebrating gluttony like this just is a bit weird. It’s meant to be a bit of fun, sure, but it’s so unhealthy. Lead by example and that, we’ve got a generation of kids growing up already with diabetes.

    It’s deeply ingrained in culture, though, a lot of my friends just think it’s normal to consume nothing but burgers and fizzy drinks. And I dunno what the answer is… but it’s definitely not eating contests.

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