Wall Street Journal
August 15, 2002
You Have to Be in Good Shape To Eat 4.21 Hot Dogs a Minute
By DIYA GULLAPALLI
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ed "Cookie" Jarvis wakes up most days at 6 a.m. and goes to the gym to
work out. He spends two hours there, riding 29 miles on an exercise
bike and walking a mile on an indoor track.
Two weeks before a big contest, he eats a head of boiled cabbage every
day when he gets home and drinks two gallons of water as fast as he
"It's becoming very time-consuming," says Mr. Jarvis, who is 36 years
old and has been eating competitively for nearly two years.
According to the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which
organizes several events such as the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Contest
in Coney Island and is run out of a New York public-relations firm,
Mr. Jarvis is the world's pizza, ice cream and french-fry eating
champ. His records include consuming a 17-inch pizza in three minutes
and devouring six pounds, 14 ounces of ice cream in 12 minutes.
But these days, in order to remain in the game, eaters like Mr.
Jarvis, who weighs 420 pounds and is 6-foot-6, are trying to slim
down. The reason: Some nutritionists say that thinner people can
actually eat more food faster than overweight people, and their bodies
don't send as many hormonal signals to the brain to stop eating when
they are full.
That is becoming clear to American eaters who belly up against much
slimmer competitors from Japan, where winners can pocket as much as
$84,000 in a contest and are dead serious about the sport. This year's
Nathan's champ, 24-year-old Takeru Kobayashi of Nagoya, Japan,
consumed 50.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes but weighs just 132 pounds. In
2000, Japanese eater Kazutoyo "The Rabbit" Arai won the contest at a
fighting weight of only 100 pounds.
Mr. Kobayashi's certified win was the subject of controversy because
some of what he ate started coming out of his nose after the final
whistle. A contestant who throws up is disqualified, but Mr. Kobayashi
snorted what came out back in, and that made it OK.
Staying trim is no easy task for people who get their kicks eating as
many hamburgers, cannoli and other fattening foods as possible. In the
old days, many eaters trained by feasting at all-you-can-eat buffets
and wolfing down 72-ounce steaks in 30 minutes. Richard Shea, the
public-relations man who with his brother and business partner,
George, formed the IFOCE in 1997 after several years of running
Nathan's contests, says he believes eaters should eschew dieting or
exotic preparation -- other than drinking a gallon of water the
morning of a contest -- because he worries about their health. The
IFOCE provides two emergency medical technicians at every event it
organizes. Richard Shea estimates that about two-thirds of American
competitive eaters are overweight.
Mr. Jarvis, who makes his living as a real-estate agent on Long
Island, has lost 49 pounds on Weight Watchers in the past three months
and hopes to lose another 140 pounds by next July 4, when the Nathan's
contest is held. "I'm going to lose enough to equal Kobayashi and one
of his friends," he says.
Mr. Kobayashi, who calls himself a "food fighter" and lives off his
contest winnings, works out three to four times a week and avoids
caffeine, alcohol and spicy food. As Americans begin to imitate
Japanese techniques, Mr. Kobayashi believes they could become serious
Competitive eating has started attracting attention in America
recently, with coverage in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN. In
February, Fox aired a show, taped in Santa Monica, Calif., called "The
Glutton Bowl," featuring eaters vying for a chance to win a $25,000
grand prize. In July, the Nathan's contest attracted more than 3,000
The IFOCE, which is paid $5,000 to $50,000 to organize eating contests
by food companies and others, ran 40 such events last year. It
currently has exclusive, unpaid contracts with 360 eaters around the
world, six of them women, who compete in its events and are sometimes
featured in its quarterly newsletter called "The Gurgitator." Most
American contests, including Nathan's, award no more than a trophy and
an all-expense-paid trip to national finals as prizes. The rest pay
chicken feed. Ben's Kosher Deli Matzo Ball contest in New York City
gives the winner a $2,500 gift certificate, and the National Buffalo
Wing Festival in Buffalo, N.Y., pays the winner $1,000.
Nevertheless, some American eaters are starting to copy the exercises
favored by the Japanese, as well as their eating habits. The exercises
involve stretching stomach muscles by drinking gallons of water
quickly, chewing gum to strengthen jaw muscles and swallowing whole
ice cubes to expand the esophagus. Others have developed their own
strategies, such as taking daily vitamin supplements and meditating
Eric "Badlands" Booker, 33, the second-place winner at this year's
Coney Island contest and the current egg and burrito-eating champion,
according to the IFOCE. says he swaps videotapes of Japanese eating
contests with his American eating buddies to learn Far Eastern
techniques. He ate 38 hard- boiled eggs in 10 minutes at the Glutton
Bowl and 15 burritos in eight minutes at a contest in New York
sponsored by the BurritoVille restaurant chain.
Mr. Booker, a New York City subway conductor, has also been training
by doing competitive judo for the past 2½ years. The intricate hand
movements and sharp focus judo requires translate into faster eating,
he says. And like Mr. Jarvis, he eats eight to nine pounds of boiled
cabbage and chugs a gallon of water in 2½ minutes every day for 10
days before a big contest.
"From 1997 to 1999, I just showed up and ate," says the 6-foot-5 Mr.
Booker, who weighs 400 pounds and aims to lose 130 pounds in the next
year. "But right now I'm learning so much, and there's so much I want
to shoot for. I'm getting to a level of concentration where it's just
me and the dogs."
Competitive eating has been popular in Japan for years. Shows such as
"Food Battle Club" and "TV Champion" regularly broadcast prime-time
eating contests -- and often draw as much as 20% of the viewing
audience. On the shows, contestants consume 20 to 30 bowls of ramen
noodles or devour 60- foot-long California sushi rolls as fast as they
can. Some restaurants even host trial runs for the TV programs. But
since April, when a 14-year-old boy in Nagoya tried to imitate the
shows during his lunch break at school and choked to death on a piece
of bread, such broadcasts have been less frequent.
Many doctors and nutritionists are mortified by the events and by the
new emphasis on losing weight as part of a training regimen. They say
overeating and rapid weight fluctuations are dangerous. "To train your
body to eat large amounts of food puts you in harm's way, even if
you're practicing with cabbage," says Dr. George L. Blackburn,
associate director of nutrition at the Harvard Medical School, in
Boston. "This is sick, abnormal behavior, and making it a spectator
sport has to be one of the saddest commentaries on our country."
But eaters such as David "Coondog" O'Karma, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound
doughnut champion from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, insist that competitive
eating helps them stay fit. Although Mr. O' Karma has long maintained
a strict exercise routine that involves weightlifting, running and
swimming daily, he says he exercises more during the six weeks leading
up to contests. Two weeks before a competition, he is able to run
three miles and swim 72 laps, up from his usual one mile and 20 laps.
On each of the two days before an event, he also eats six to eight
pounds of canned, sliced pineapple in three minutes, to stretch his
"I definitely push myself harder in my workouts when I'm training for
an event," says Mr. O'Karma, a painting contractor who keeps in touch
with Messrs. Booker and Jarvis, and got a Christmas card from Mr.
Kobayashi last year. "Eating motivates me to exercise and get in top
Updated August 15, 2002
Copyright 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved