I recently just completed a three-week elimination diet that required me to, not only cut my consumption of the foods I love, but cut out a multitude of foods that I could possibly be sensitive to (wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, eggs, soy, etc). One thing that these diets do for me is making me tremendously more mindful about what, and how, I am eating. I am guilty of eating often and eating mindlessly, but not to excess. However, for a portion of the population eating excessive amounts of food is not only appealing, but also intensely sporting.
I am talking about competitive eating. Unlike competitive cooking (think Top Chef and the dwindling array of other reality-based cooking shows), competitive eating is about eating as much as humanly possible in the shortest time possible. This sort of eating consists of everything from hot dogs to bowls of mayonnaise, and many people (the world over) treat it as a serious sport, as well as a discipline. One of most notable competitions occurs annually every July 4th at Nathan’s Hot Dog in Coney Island (considered the Super Bowl of competitive eating), and contestants are goaded on by thousands of cheering fans to eat upwards of 50 hot dogs (including buns) in under ten minutes. Unlike the highly entertaining pie eating contests that have entertained state fair attendees over the last few decades, these contests (highly regulated by the International Federation of Competitive Eating) are serious, if not grossly entertaining, competitive events.
Even though the United States is now seen as the world’s most excessive and obese nation, it would be wrong to assume that these events are purely American folly. Events are held worldwide and contestants come from all over the world to sit and stuff their faces. It would also be wrong to assume that all of the most successful competitive eaters are large, stocky, men well versed in a gluttonous lifestyle. Some of the most successful competitive eaters (also known as “gurgitators”) hardly fit this bill. Takeru Kobayashi, a slight Japanese man, had been the longtime reigning champion of the Nathan’s hot dog eating competition, and is well regarded for his ability to consume massive amounts of nearly anything, including nearly 18 lbs of cow brains he consumed in roughly 15 minutes. Then there is the 100 lb Korean-American Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas who is also a top contender and known for eating 65 hard-boiled eggs in under 7 minutes.
Hong Kong competitive eating outfit, “The EatCredibles” doing what they do best.
The obvious question would be, why do people go to these extremes to win notoriety and reasonable cash rewards? The answer is not because they are very hungry. Most likely, like anything else that comes with a bit of fame, competitive eating holds a certain rarified appeal for these eaters who have to diligently train and endure in order to successfully compete (it is not just a matter of having a large appetite and a bottomless stomach). Competitors must drown out the SOS calls from their stomachs and suppress their natural gag reflex in order to keep shoveling in the ice cream, pasta, and oysters. Plainly speaking, competitive eating is hardly the most healthy or beneficial competitive sport to undertake (this is not the swim team). There exists a very real risk of choking or damaging the stomach by filling it well beyond its natural holding potential. Some competitors, knowing full well that walking around with 65 eggs in their stomach is not at all healthy, choose not to digest what they eat at an event. Instead they elect to purge the food by vomiting after the judging has been finalized. And as we know from research on bulimia, stomach acids from frequent vomiting can greatly damage the esophagus as well as tooth enamel.
For those of us that don’t count ourselves as fans, nor participants, in these sort of competitive eating events, but consider ourselves as health conscious and healthy eaters, the practice of competitive eating baffles and disgusts. Why, in a world of epidemic obesity as well as starvation and malnutrition, do people engage in this sort of competition and entertainment? Is it just sport, or is it some sort of grotesque and bizarre commentary on humankind’s fraught relationship with food? It is hard to be entirely damning of such a diversion, but it is nearly impossible to be at all supportive of it either.