How Competitive Eating Works

The Best Competitive Eaters in the World

The Incredible Edible Egg
The hard-boiled egg eating contest is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1967 Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke." In the film Luke wagers that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. He manages the feat after a short training period, which consists of stomach stretching and speed-eating tests. In light of the Black Widow's record, Luke's isn't all that impressive.

Just who are the world's best eaters? In IFOCE parlance, they are known as gurgitators. Although you might expect these super-eaters to be huge, they range from giants like "Hungry" Charles Hardy, at 340 pounds, to the Black Widow, Sonya Thomas, at around 100 pounds.

Here are a few of the top gurgitators:

  • Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi
    The reigning champion of worldwide eating, especially hot dogs, the Nagasaki, Japan native holds the world record for hot dog eating - 53 and 3/4 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes in July 2006. The muscular Kobayashi only weighs about 160 pounds, although he eats such vast amounts of food that his weight fluctuates greatly after a contest. He once consumed almost 18 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes.

  • Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas
    Although she is of Korean ancestry, Virginian Sonya Thomas is considered America's greatest hope of reclaiming the number one ranking from the Japanese. Thomas, who weighs about 100 pounds, holds numerous records throughout the United States, filling herself with ravioli, hamburgers, chicken wings and grilled cheese sandwiches. She even put Cool Hand Luke to shame, eating 65 hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes.

  • Crazy Legs Conti
    Crazy Legs Conti
    Photo courtesy Crazy Legs Conti
    Crazy Legs Conti

    This dreadlocked New York City native was a fan of eating contests before entering IFOCE competition in 2002. A champion oyster eater, Conti was recently the subject of a documentary film called "Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating."

  • Oleg Zhornitskiy
    A Ukrainian eater known for his fashion sense and excellent physical condition, Zhornitskiy is a former Buffalo chicken wing champion and holds one of the more bizarre IFOCE records: he once ate four 32-ounce bowls of mayonnaise in eight minutes.

  • Eric "Badlands" Booker
    The 420-pound Booker is not only one of the top eaters in the United States, holding records in doughnuts, candy bars, and pumpkin pies, but he has also released a rap album and works as a New York City subway conductor.
    Cookie Jarvis
    Photo courtesy IFOCE
    Cookie Jarvis

  • Cookie Jarvis
    Another New Yorker, 410-pound-Jarvis has long been considered the eater to beat in the United States. He holds records in pasta, ice cream and other events.

  • Hirofumi Nakajima, Orio Ito, and Kazutoyo Arai
    These three eaters were among the first Japanese to compete in American events, stunning American eaters and shattering records in the early 1990s.

  • Peter Washburn
    One of the old greats, Washburn held the world hot dog eating record for many years in the 1960s, downing 18 and ½ dogs.

It's easy to see from this cast of characters that there is no one type of person that excels at competitive eating. While many of the top eaters are lightweights with petite bodies, gurgitators weighing more than 400 pounds compete in the upper echelons as well. However, competitive eating fans and competitors alike have plenty of theories about what constitutes a "champion" body type.

Sonya Thomas winning the 2005 Johnsonville Brats contest
Photo courtesy IFOCE
Sonya Thomas winning the 2005 Johnsonville Brats contest

When small eaters like Thomas and Kobayashi first arrived, some eaters developed the theory that fat actually hinders competitive eating. The idea was that a lot of fat around the mid-section made it too difficult for the stomach to expand. This theory was originally proposed by eater Ed Krachie. His paper on the subject, "Can Abdominal Fat Act as a Restrictive Agent on Stomach Expansion? An Exploration of the Impact of Adipose Tissue on Competitive Eating," was rejected by numerous scholarly journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. However, a 2003 Popular Science article supports the theory: "The size of the stomach at rest is inconsequential. All that matters is the stomach's ability to expand, to adapt itself to the amount of food being shoved down the esophagus. A skinny man's stomach has little fat to push against it and fight the food for space" [ref]. Some eaters believe that a muscular abdomen hinders stomach expansion as well, although Kobayashi's muscular body would seem to contradict this theory.

Next we'll see some of the records held by competitive eaters.