Stuffed: The Secret World of Competitive Eating

It’s a part of every 4th of July celebration–the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. This year’s champion ate 62 hot dogs for $10,000. But at what cost?

It began as a county fair past-time with the pie-eating contest. Since then, competitive eating has surged in popularity, mostly thanks to the annual 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, where winners gorge for a chance to win $10,000 and take home the coveted Mustard Belt. The “sport” is taken seriously enough to be filmed live on ESPN. But how serious are the consequences of stuffing so much food into the human stomach? The competitions on TV don’t show the painful side effects of speed eating, which can be anything from mild heartburn…to death.

How they do it

Competitive eaters don’t just walk in on the big day and chow down. They train like any other athlete (to an extent), starting in the weeks before the competition. The goal? Stomach expansion, as much as they can handle. Feats like eating 9 pounds of watermelon in 15 minutes are not unheard of. Some prefer to stuff up on the food of the competition, while others might focus purely on volume, eating tons of cabbage and other low caloric foods. There are specific strategies used in competitions. ‘Dunking’ refers to dunking the food in liquid to make it easier to chew (yes, your jaw gets sore after 50 hot dogs). ‘Chipmunking’ is when the competitor stuffs in as much food as possible in the last few seconds of the competition. The stuffing part is easy–it’s gulping it down that’s tricky. A study on Tim Janus, another competitive eater, found that his stomach did not contract (a movement called peristalsis) as it normally should, to move food down the intestinal tract. His hot dogs simply stayed there.

The risks

It’s hard to really pinpoint the danger of competitive eating. The first conclusion jumped to might be weight. One Nathan’s hot dog with bun comes to around 300 calories–part of a tidy lunch for most. The problem for Joey Chestnut is that he ate 62 hot dogs, or 18,600 calories. He just literally ate enough food for a week, so why does he weigh 220lbs at 6’1? He’s not the only slim speed-eater. Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, female champion of the Mustard Belt, is a tiny Korean. Chestnut cites running as his method for keeping the weight down, as well as choosing not to train with the foods he will be eating. But weight is not the only possible issue.

Not just in the USA

In 2008, a 23 year old student died in an eating competition held at a university in Taiwan. He lost consciousness after vomiting uncontrollably as he ate the steamed buns which were the food for the competition. Vomiting is such a part of competitive eating that committees even have rules for it, declaring any trace of vomited food to be a disqualification. They don’t address the actual danger. Other risks include stomach rupture and gastroparesis, as well as acid reflux and diabetes. Despite these dangers, competitive eating remains a hugely popular sport around the world.

Food for Thought

What is the appeal in watching someone test the limits of the human body in such potentially dangerous ways? There is something about speed eating that attracts a lot of people, from bragging rights to the competitive factors. Every city has that local diner with the monstrous dish that’s free if finished. For others, it’s like a challenge. TV shows like Man vs. Wild Food have become wildly popular for its feats of consumption. Everyone wonders, “What are the long-term effects of this?” Some think it’s harmless as a once-in-a-while thing. Others can’t wait till the day when competitive eating is relegated again to the quaint outdated past-time it once was.

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