Epic Meal Time/The Biggest Loser: A Divergence in the American Diet

In Pop-Culture on December 14, 2011 at 2:26 am

At a time when such a strong emphasis has been placed on one’s diet — or lack thereof — two seemingly contradictory trends have arisen within the American pop-culture.

In 2004, NBC launched the first season of “The Biggest Loser,” a reality show that challenges overweight individuals to lose weight while competing for a cash prize. Since the show’s inception, it has expanded into more than 20 countries and has maintained a considerable audience, with millions of viewers tuning in each week to track the contestants’ progress. Guided by personal trainers, the competitors undergo intense regimens of exercise and diet in an effort to lose a higher percentage of their body weight than their fellow contestants. Many critics have argued that the show promotes unhealthy and unrealistic means of weight loss, focusing too heavily on the entertainment aspect of the program. This aside, the show’s 2007 viewer demographics indicate that there is perhaps an alternative reason besides sheer enjoyment for why people watch the show, namely that they find inspiration in or can relate to the successes and struggles of the dieters, as roughly 42% of the viewership have expressed a desire to lose between 100-150 pounds.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are a new breed of shows, that while do not enjoy such a widespread audience as The Biggest Loser, nevertheless command a sizeable cult of followers. The aptly named Travel Channel program, “Man v.s. Food,” is one such example of these shows, as it revolves around the travels of host Adam Richman as he goes throughout the country taking on gargantuan eating challenges. Each episode, Richman travels to a new city to test his gastronomic limits by eating massive portions of food — his successful completion of a 8 lb. burger in less than an hour comes to mind. Much like the waistlines of those involved in these shows, this trend of glorified gluttony has begun to expand and can be seen to a greater extent in the wildly popular YouTube series, Epic Meal Time. Each Tuesday, the internet program showcases a group of perpetually drunk, vulgar, aged-out fraternity brothers as they attempt to create the most over-the-top or “epic” meal possible. Without fail, the final product will contain copious amounts of pork products that will be doused in Jack Daniels whiskey and eaten by or in the presence of, let’s call them, “well endowed women.”  While the Catholic church may revolve around its own holy trinity of fundamental figures, so too does Epic Meal Time — albeit a more hedonistic combination of booze, breasts and bacon. It’s the kind of thing that you need to see for yourself to fully understand.  In the year that the show has been around (my kudos to them for lasting this long; they must have some top-notch cardiologists) their YouTube page has collected over 280 million views — that’s 7 times the population of Spain.

It seems curious that these two seemingly opposite types of shows have been received with such adoration within the same society. A reasonable explanation is that the two types of shows appeal to very different demographics — the viewers of shows like Epic Meal Time are a bunch of veritable Homer Simpsons, while those who watch The Biggest Loser are health-freaks. However, I believe there is far more crossover in the viewership. I think it is likely that many of those who enjoying watching contestants scarf down celery sticks and then do as many push-ups as their body will support are the very same people who will open up YouTube hours later and watch a bunch of grown men stuff a turkey full of Big Macs and Twinkies.  A show like Epic Meal Time can only exist because in a time of cutting back and calorie counting it allows viewers to eat vicariously through it — it’s not like anyone is watching it for recipe ideas.

These shows have hence given rise to the now-popular term, “Food Porn.” For at their heart, that is exactly what these shows are, pornography: watching an experience that you personally will likely never partake in. This sentiment is only further proven at the end of each Epic Meal Time episode when the camera zooms in for a slow motion close up of the greasy food entering into a welcome mouth. Undeniably, there is sense of taboo in these shows; I know that I feel more uneasy in the library watching an episode of Epic Meal Time than I do watching a more traditional cooking show (something I find myself doing often — very productive, I know).

The most important thing that we can glean from a show like this, however, is that in its over-indulgence and absurdity it almost reaches the level of satire, commenting on where we stand as a culture with respect to the way we view food and eating. There always has and will be an audience for this type of media, in the same way that Stephen Colbert uses the conservative persona of his invented character to mock the media and politics. It is merely another exercise in taking a stance on the periphery in order to comment on the issues of the center. While no one but the creators of Epic Meal Time know if the satirical nature of their show was intended, it is without question that it could not exist without a show like The Biggest Loser to serve as a backdrop.

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  1. Are Epic Meal Time and The Biggest Loser really opposed? I seem them more as continuities of the same pathology, a binge/purge psychosis. What about the spectatorial function of TBL–it seems like much of the pleasure of the show derives from spectating on the grotesque body (in a similar way to EMT)

    • I think you’re exactly right. Their joint sucess is in large part due to the fact that EMT serves as the binge to TBL’s purge, the former’s yin to the latter’s yang. It is not until we start viewing the two entities as a whole that we can begin to disect what they say about our society in relation to food. Thanks for the comment! Regards, Andrew.

  2. brilliant post I’m a big whiskey drinker from Ontaro

  3. Hello,I love to find out more about this topic. I appreciate you for publishing Epic Meal Time/The Biggest Loser: A Divergence in the American Diet Food Matters.

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