[The Sports Issue]

Competitive eating: nature or nurture?

Juan Rodriguez has eaten more than 60 tamales in 12 minutes. You can’t hang.
Photo: Leila Navidi

We’ve all done it—gone to a buffet or all-you-can-eat anything, stuffed ourselves to the point of pain, only to slip into a food coma, marveling at the amount we’ve crammed into our guts. But compared to competitive eaters, our heaped plates are child’s helpings. It’s not our fault; they were born that way.

Las Vegas resident Juan Rodriguez, enjoying his first year in the International Federation of Competitive Eating, had a talent for excessive consumption when he was only 9. “I destroyed anywhere from 12 to 20 plates at Great America—pancakes, French toast, eggs, you name it. Whatever people threw at me I would keep eating.”

However, Rodriguez took his prodigious talent for granted and didn’t get seriously competitive until 14 years later. “One Easter brunch my brothers and my cousin called me out, saying I didn’t have it anymore. So we threw the gauntlet down and ate for an hour straight. By the end, I was the only one who hadn’t thrown up.”

Rodriguez, who lost all his childhood weight and now works as a personal trainer, agrees that most successful competitive eaters are born, not made. “It’s really hard to train yourself if you can’t already do it,” he says. “The average stomach holds two pounds of food at the most, and competitive eaters can hold in between 13 to 20 pounds.”

So—do you have what it takes? Here’s a test: Consider how many tamales you think you could eat in 12 minutes. Maybe 10, a dozen? Rodriguez has eaten more than 60—and that’s not even close to the world record! Good luck.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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