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Big appetite, little time

Big appetite, little time

By: Rakell Merci

The timer is set, the challenge is ready, and there’s only one thought running through Nathan Figueroa’s mind: Leave no crumb behind.

Eating challenges aren’t unfamiliar to the 28 year old. He’s eaten a 10-ounce burger, a carton of fries and a seven-layer cake for the Kitchen Sink Challenge at Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel. He’s also scarfed down the Quadruple Bypass Burger, which is commprosed of four half-pound beef patties and eight slices of American cheese, at the Las Vegas Heart Attack Grill.

“I’ve always had a pretty big appetite,” said the half Asian and half Puerto Rican American jokingly.

Though competitive eating isn’t a full-time job, Figueroa said he uploads the eating challenges on his YouTube channel “natefiggs” when he has time.

“I don’t do this every day,” Figueroa said. “I do this once or maybe twice a week, depending on what the contest is.”

Though the cost of traveling can rack up, Figueroa exercises his sport by completing challenges at home or at local competitions.

“The cool thing about it – about this –  I’ve met some really awesome people. I’ve met Matt Stonie, Miki Sudo… really cool people,” he said.

Matt “Megatoad” Stonie is the current Major League Eating  (MLE) champion, and Miki Sudo is the top female champion.  MLE gathers the top competitive eaters to race to eat as much as they can under a set time limit. A goal for most competitive eaters is to join the big leagues and compete against the best eaters of the world. Four of the top 10 eaters: Matt Stonie, Miki Sudo, Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas and “The Lovely” Juliet Lee are also Asian American.

Despite the prevalence of Asian Americans in the MLE, Figueroa said that he doesn’t think his culture or ethnicity has anything to do with it.

“Here’s the thing, I don’t have a high metabolism,” Figueroa said. “The reason why I don’t blow up like a balloon is because I work it off. I literally have to work my ass off to keep my weight maintained without me adding extra pounds to my body.”

Figueroa also said he doesn’t believe his culture plays a role in his competitive eating abilities, but he was intrigued by the theory.

“I understand what you are saying,” Figueroa said. “There’s something about Asian (American) eating….        Miki has a crazy capacity. It’s kind of weird. I didn’t even think about till now,” Figueroa said.

According to him, fitness is a must for competitive eaters.

“If you look at most competitive eaters, if you see the best competitive eaters in the world, you’ll see that they’re in shape or at least not overweight.”

According to University of Florida food and science professor Laura Acosta, there are some serious risks associated with competitive eating.

“Obviously, the first one would be weight gain, if done on a regular basis,” Acosta said. “There have been some incidents where people vomited, and there have been rare cases of people choking to death.”

According to her, training for a competitive eating challenge could stop the digestive system’s ability to contract.

“You could end up with gastroparesis, where the food just sits in the stomach and doesn’t move along,” Acosta said. “That is absolutely a long-term risk.”

But she said that the frequency of competitive eating makes a difference.

“If somebody does this once, (there’s a) much less likely chance these long-term risks will happen compared to someone who does this as a sport or trains for it,” Acosta said.

Figueroa doesn’t deny this risk.

“It’s obviously not a healthy thing, especially if you are doing it on a consistent basis,” he  said. “The way I picture it, I give my body a break from challenge to challenge, contest to contest, so I am OK. I haven’t had any crazy side effects from it.

UF psychology professor Neil Rowland said that, like other competitive sports, competitive eating has more than just physical struggles. 

“Like running a race, at some point, their muscles are going to be screaming at them,” the professor said. “But they push themselves to keep going, keep going, be faster than the next person.”

Figueroa said that this struggle is familiar to him.

“The brain has a good way in telling you it’s disgusting,“ he said. “And it becomes a struggle to complete (the challenge).”

But the obstacles haven’t stopped him from uploading  new eating challenges every week on his YouTube channel.

“I actually do enjoy the food challenges. The only food I don’t really like is pickles,” he said, laughing.

For him, the sport is all about the journey.

“I have no idea (the outcome), but I am just playing it by ear, day by day,” he said.

Figueroa said that he would like to enter a MLE competition with the best eaters, like Stonie and Sudo.

“I love the people who compete,” he said. “And I would have not met these amazing people if I wasn’t doing this weird adventure.” 

His reasons for this “weird  adventure” are simple, but significant.

“The minority of people don’t eat like competitive eaters, and I like being different than other people. It’s fun,” he said. “Be different.”

Featured image courtesy of Nathan Figueroa.

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