When I Was 17, I Was Diagnosed With Anorexia. Now, I'm a Competitive Eater.

Erik Lamkin, 25, has what many would describe as a dream gig. As a professional competitive eater, he regularly travels the country taking on food challenges, shoveling in thousands of calories worth of pizza, ice cream, and cheeseburgers in a matter of hours or even minutes. His YouTube channel, ErikTheElectric, where he documents his extreme food challenges (most famously, he once ate 100,000 calories in 4 days), has almost 570,000 subscribers, which has enabled him to literally make eating his full-time job.

But Lamkin’s path to YouTube success hasn’t been smooth. When he was a teenager, he was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which people severely restrict their caloric intake. At his lowest weight, Lamkin was 5’9″ and weighed 118 pounds, which led to a three-month hospitalization when he was 17 years old. (It’s worth noting that eating disorders among men are surprisingly common: according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), one in three people with eating disorders is male, and approximately 10 million American men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.)

Even though Lamkin has made a name for himself with his outlandish stunts, he differentiates himself from other vloggers by speaking openly about his history of disordered eating. While some have criticized him for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, Lamkin insists that he eats clean off-camera and works out seven days a week. “Competitive eating is not healthy, but you can still maintain a healthy lifestyle while you’re doing it,” he says.

MensHealth.com reached out to Erik to discuss his struggle with anorexia, how he stays in shape despite consuming thousands of calories, and the grossest thing that’s ever happened to him at a challenge.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

During my childhood, I was overweight, and as a teen I was bullied for my weight. So I went through a big period of being unsatisfied with my body. At 16, I lost about 70 pounds over the course of 6-8 months from a restrictive diet. Then came the exercise, which spiraled into over-exercise. I was exercising every single day, as often as I could. That led to me dropping even more weight. At my lowest, I was 5’9” and 118 pounds.

One day, my stepmother had a party or something, and one of her friends noticed that I had dropped a significant amount of weight. She told my parents I didn’t look healthy, and they became concerned for my safety and my overall health. I eventually got an ultimatum around my 17th birthday, which led to me seeing a specialist, who diagnosed me with anorexia.

At first, I was in denial. I wouldn’t say I was ignorant about the fact that males could get eating disorders. I’d been conditioned to believe it was almost impossible for men to get eating disorders, and that it was almost like an unmasculine thing. I didn’t see myself as someone with an eating disorder. It was like being told you weren’t a man.

I entered my first treatment facility after my 17th birthday. For two weeks, I was at UCSD [Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research], which is one of the most famous eating disorder centers in the country. I needed to go before I went to college to prove to my dad that I was capable of taking care of myself. It was one of the traumatic phases of my life. I was under 8-10 hours of supervision every day. I was fed every single meal. I was watched every second. It was almost like being in a prison.

Then, when I was in college, I went through a brief relapse. I was on an antidepressant that made me lose my appetite, so I basically had an excuse to not eat. I went to the Rosewood [Eating Disorder Treatment Center] for three months. That was my first dose of reality.

“I didn’t see myself as someone with an eating disorder. It was like being told you weren’t a man.”

At Rosewood, I was one guy out of 36 women. I was in a hospital setting, so people were attached to machines. There were people using wheelchairs. The first night I was there, I saw a girl stick paper clips down her throat to get herself out of there. That was the most scared I’ve ever felt.

But without a doubt, it helped me. I learned a lot about myself and who I was. I was uncomfortable, but I needed to be uncomfortable to get comfortable again. And that’s the biggest thing for eating disorder recovery. Treatment focuses not just on helping you gain weight, but on healing your mind and teaching you the coping mechanisms to regain a better sense of self. That’s why I’m able to do what I’m able to do today, because I’m able to combat any negativity that I used to let get to me. I would say it definitely saved my life.

Erik Lamkin

I first got into competitive eating in 2013. It was after I did my first bike race after I got home from treatment. I thought, “I want to try something that would be just crazy.” So I went to this place called the Broken Yolk, which was on Man vs. Food. They have this thing called the Iron Man Challenge that’s a 12-egg omelet, two large biscuits, and a bunch of home fries. I went down to the restaurant and I sat down and I ate it in record time.

I was blown away. I thought I would feel all this guilt and all these voices hitting me, but instead I thought, “Wow. I’m perfectly OK in this very moment. I might gain a little weight from this meal, but I had the time of my life.” The reactions of people in the restaurant were amazing. I’d always thought of food as negative, but there was nothing but positivity there. So I did a few more challenges that year.

Erik Lamkin

Competitive eating and YouTube challenges are drastically different. When I prepare for a contest, I’ll eat a high-volume meal: a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruit. The day of, I’ll drink a gallon of water 2-3 hours before a contest so my stomach has expanded. I don’t fast before a challenge — it’s not gonna set yourself up to have a great relationship with food, so I try to take in a few hundred calories with a protein shake or two. My capacity is 14-15 pounds. If it’s pumpkin pie or ice cream, I can push it to 15-17. I’m not the fastest competitive eater out there, but I can eat a lot.

YouTube stuff is different. When I’m filming the calorie challenges, it’s like a movie. I have to set up shots, I have to set up thumbnails. Calorie challenges are planned, so I have to input what I’m gonna have for each meal, whereas I go into competition and I have no idea what’s going to happen.

I got these ideas for the calorie challenges based on the infamous 10,000 calorie challenge that was floating around the internet. I tried to do the 10,000 calorie challenge and I ended up doing 15,000 and I was still hungry at the end of the night. So I did 25,000 calorie challenges. I didn’t think they were as difficult as people made them out to be.

When I did the 100,000 calorie challenge, the hardest thing about it was the physical pain. It’s hard expanding your stomach with all that food, then waking up and dealing with it the next day. You have to deal with the water retention, the sodium overload, the sugar overload. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve gotten comments and messages: “I wish I could eat 100,000 calories!” But it’s not the fun that it’s made out to be. I just have a unique ability.

The grossest thing that ever happened in competition was I was doing an ice cream challenge in Los Angeles at a soda ice cream place. It was 16 pounds and they served it in a trough, like a huge white container. It’s made for 2 people and it’s like 24 scoops of ice cream with whipped cream. I was about 11 minutes in and I put the last spoonful in my mouth and I had to drink water with it. It had turned a weird temperature, and the moment that the water touched my throat I projectile vomited ice cream straight out. It was so embarrassing. So yeah, it’s not a very glamorous lifestyle.

Erik Lamkin

I’m actually very conscious of my health. That’s an important aspect of this that people don’t realize. I actually have perfect bloodwork. Competitive eating is not healthy, but you can still maintain a healthy lifestyle while you’re doing it.

[Off-camera], my daily diet is a lot of fruits and vegetables and what you would call “healthy” foods. I don’t count calories or track any of that. I just make sure my diet is largely plant-based. I’d say 3-4 times a week, I make sure I get a lot of lean protein: eggs, oatmeal. I don’t eat any of the stuff I eat in my challenges. Eating all that stuff over the past few years means I don’t deal with cravings anymore. My girlfriend will be like, “I’m really craving a cinnamon roll.” I don’t feel like that at all.

I’ve done 20,000-calorie fruit and veggie challenges before. But a lot of my subscribers are from Korea, Russia, and they love seeing me eat Pop-Tarts, Oreos, and McDonalds, because they don’t necessarily have access to those foods. So the truth is, if I did a 50,000 calorie broccoli, chicken, and rice challenge, no one would care.

Erik Lamkin

To stay in shape, I make sure I lift every single day, and my workouts are all full-body. I bench, squat, and deadlift on the days I do challenges to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible. For cardio, I keep it 45 minutes to an hour. I’ll ride my bike for an hour and a half in the morning before a challenge. Cycling has always been an escape for me.

I recently got done with a tour across Texas where we did restaurant challenges in San Antonio, Houston, and Austin, which raised $1400 for the Feeding America organization, and I make sure I find a gym every day when I’m on the road.

“When I was in recovery, I was so afraid of food. I don’t feel that way at all anymore.”

That said, I still gain a hefty amount of weight from the challenges. I’d estimate I put on about 15 pounds just from traveling this month. I know I will gain weight, so mitigating the weight gain is kind of pointless. Working out stimulates my appetite and is more for the mental benefit for me.

Erik Lamkin

I’ve had a bunch of people I went to treatment with tell me that I’ve inspired them. I’ve had a few therapists reach out to me and say they were super proud of me for what I was doing because they had seen me at my worst, and they never would have guessed I’d do what I do now.

I’ve been hearing the critique [that what I do qualifies as binge eating] for the past four years. But I really don’t think of it as binge eating. Binge eating involves an emotional component. It’s a source of shame and fear, and when you’re binge eating, you almost lose your consciousness. I’ve been around people who have no idea what we’ve been talking about because they’re lost in their binge, the taste of the food.

To me, competitive eating is drastically different. Doing those contests has taught me I can turn [the eating impulse] on and off. When I was in recovery, I was so afraid of food. I’d think, “Oh no, I’ll eat so much that I’ll get fat.” I don’t feel that way at all anymore. Recovery is subjective. You have to gain a better understanding of yourself and be able to teach yourself the coping mechanisms you need. That’s something I’ve been able to do.

I know that if I talked to a lot of eating disorder therapists, they’d go by the clinical definition of binge eating, and competitive eating is not healthy at all. But I’m really not all that interested in what a therapist has to tell me, because to me it’s all relative, and I’m happier and healthier I’ve ever been. I love the life I have now, and I’m so grateful for what I have now. And my life is way more than a video people see online.

If you suspect that you struggle with an eating disorder, please seek professional help immediately or call the National Eating Disorders Association support line at 1 (800) 931-2237.

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