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Competitive eating: look who's overeating for sport, and millions of views

Competitive eating is considered a sport and has some serious following in the world. We speak to the pros, to know how they eat large quantities of food in a small amount of time and the risks involved.

November 06, 2021 / 01:58 PM IST
For their very first video, father-son duo Porchezhiyan and Sabari Kumar ate a 4 kg jackfruit in 7 minutes 39 seconds.

For their very first video, father-son duo Porchezhiyan and Sabari Kumar ate a 4 kg jackfruit in 7 minutes 39 seconds.

Videos of mountains of biryani, towers of burgers and piles of chicken tandoori being demolished within minutes are setting the Internet on fire. Eating for fame and likes has become a serious business.

The trend of consuming as much as you can, as fast as you can, within a given period of time is relatively new. It evolved in the United States from hot dog and pie eating competitions at the local fair, to international tournaments with competitors striving to set world records.

Since the first episode of Man V Food on The Cooking Channel in 2008, the social world has seen a rise in wannabe Adam Richmans. In the US, YouTuber Matt Stonie garnered 52 million views on one video alone: that of him eating the most amount of fire noodles (15 packets) in one go.

It’s a lot to stomach

The speed-eating trend that became a rage in the West has spilled over to India too.Ulhas Kamathe who accumulated millions of views with his trademark ‘Chicken Leg Piece’ videos?

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The mustachioed, chain-sporting father of two became an online sensation with his 20-second mukbangs (eating videos) which showed him announcing the names of dishes before biting into them ravenously.

Gobbling up to 100 pani puris, 12 packets of maggi, 25 Kesar mangoes and 2.5 kilos of chicken, dressed in his trademark tee and  heavy jewellery, is no less than a performance art.

“I love chicken and have been eating at least a kilo of it every day. All the food is made by my wife and shot at meal times at home. It’s never staged. To keep the content interesting, we look for newer dishes such as Malaysian rice and Hong Kong rice on YouTube,” says Kamathe. Kamathe adds that he works out for an hour and half daily.

Another eating machine Sanket Sankpal, a civil engineering graduate from Mumbai, has been amassing hundreds of thousands of followers through his food channel Wake'N'bite.

From wolfing down 100 modaks during Ganesh Chaturthi to polishing off 100 cheese chicken lollipops to guzzling 2.4-litre Maaza in 20 seconds, Sankpal has tackled a wide range of food challenges on his way to 1.9 million subscribers.

What’s the trick to keeping so much food down?

“Sips of water in between bites is most important as it softens and lubricates the food, allowing it to be swallowed more easily,” Sankpal explains. The only time he felt sick and close to dizzy was when he downed 1.3 kg honey in 1 minute 37 seconds!

The speed eating videos in India follow the same format as their foreign counterparts. There are enormous portions of food and the all-important timer but with a twist: the Indian videos are mostly a family affair, and the food served is homemade. Sankpal ropes in his brother Sagar, and at times, even gets his parents to join in the challenges.

Relative newcomers to the world of professional eating are the Gujarati brothers from Vadodara - Akash and Vishwa Joshi. The duo with a monstrous appetite is dominating the YouTube speed eating space in India with ‘Viwa Food World’ that only features vegetarian food challenges but has still managed to gain over 4 million subscribers.

Mammoth thalis, 16 plates of pav bhaji, 300 pani puris, 2 large pizzas - watching the Joshi brothers pack away days worth of calories in just minutes is strangely mesmerizing.

How do they manage to eat so much?

“We have always had a large appetite. That’s what gave us the idea of launching a channel like this. Our bodies are tuned in a way that these challenges don’t affect us, even when we consume junk food,” says Akash Joshi who is a professional photographer.

The crowded competitive eating space is not restricted to youngsters alone. Tamil Nadu-based Saapattu Raman channel on YouTube and other platforms is all about 59-year-old Porchezhiyan’s enormous appetite. His very first video had him and his son Sabari Kumar gobble up a 4 kg jackfruit in 7 minutes 39 seconds. The sheer amount of food this Ayurveda practitioner takes on in his challenges is mindboggling - 5 kg mutton biryani, 100 idlis, nine plates of rice and curry… He claims the secret behind his gargantuan eating capacity is his genes and a digestive tonic that he retails on his website. Of course, a daily regime of Yoga and pranayama also helps.

Why do people watch speed eaters?

A big part of the experience of watching eating videos is the sensory allure also known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).

The visuals of gigantic amounts of food coupled with sounds like slurping, chewing, crunching and many other noises emitted while eating give many devoted viewers "tingles".

For some of us watching and listening to other people eat may be weird. But for most speed-eating fans, it’s almost hypnotic.

“I prefer the pizza and chicken videos,” says Sapna Rao, an advertising student who says the videos help relieve stress. “While watching others eat rich food, you can fantasize that you are eating it. For me, I associate food with pleasure. So, watching these videos makes me feel happy.” It is people like Rao who keep speed eaters in business.

Most competitive eaters claim to make a good amount of money from the videos. Porchezhiyan rakes in Rs 1-1.5 lakh a month from the videos, and plans to launch a store to retail his digestive tonic.

Sankpal grosses Rs 50,000-1,00,000 a month on an average. “Some months we even make up to Rs 1.5 lakh. Everything depends on the number of videos we upload per month and views on them,” says Sankpal, who is travelling to Dubai this month to shoot his first international video.

Apart from ad revenue, which fluctuates, competitive eaters often work with sponsors to promote products on their videos.

Dangerous trend

Aside from health risks like weight gain, food poisoning and vomiting, competitive eating and drinking could lead to serious health complications.

“The very act of competitive eating goes against the way the body is meant to consume food - slow chewing which aids digestion. When you engage in competitive eating, your systems goes into overdrive and so it's an aberration in the way the body must receive nourishment,” says macrobiotic nutritionist Shonali Sabherwal.

Many things could go wrong when you eat in this fashion, Sabherwal adds. “It could lead to choking, as the food may go down the...airways. Digestion gets affected, which is why most people vomit after engaging in this kind of eating. Sodium levels may also drop leading to hyponatremia,” she explains.

The dangers don't stop there, though. “In the long run, these people are at a greater risk for obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Moreover, binge-eating may become normal for them and lead to an enlarged stomach,” says Anshu Chaturvedi, head, department of clinical nutrition and dietetics, Fortis Escorts Hospital, Jaipur.

An adult stomach can typically hold about one litre of food. But competitive eaters train it to stretch far beyond - sometimes up to seven times - its natural resting capacity. A lot of competitive eaters need a gastrectomy (stomach surgery) to restore their ability to eat normally.

Surprisingly, though, most competitive eaters / influencers interviewed for this story are in good shape currently. They are mostly lean and fit. They stick to home-cooked meals, and follow regular workouts - some do intense weight-training sessions. For now, it seems they can eat their cake and have room left for more too!
Nivedita Jayaram Pawar is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist, who writes on food, art, design, travel and lifestyle.

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