by Patrick Wu
Shaq was hungry for a victory. Winless on the first eight episodes of his own reality TV show Shaq Vs. on which he challenges competitors in their own sports, basketball star Shaquille O’Neal was more than ready to defeat Joey “Jaws” Chestnut in an eating contest. Usually, Shaq would negotiate a handicap against his opponents, and this time was no exception, as he talked Joey into letting him eat with four ordinary people as a team. For five minutes, the six of them stuffed their faces with as many hot dogs as they could, and as the spectators counted down the final seconds, Team Shaq edged out Jaws by one hot dog with none other than Shaq himself painfully devouring the winning hot dog. Although Shaq secured his first TV show victory, he alone actually lost by a landslide, as he could only force down eight hot dogs in the same amount of time that the lanky Mr. Chestnut was able to scarf down thirty-five. After watching this episode, it became difficult for me to digest the fact that today there exist people such as Mr. Chestnut who train for and get paid to compete in these eating contests while destroying their own bodies and needlessly wasting food. In addition, it became hard for me to swallow the fact that there also exists an audience both in America and world-wide, that views, supports, and promotes this gluttony and obviously self-destructive activity. Despite these clear draw-backs and negative connotations to competitive eating, what exactly drives its popularity today, for both the viewers and speed eaters?
The Roots of Competitive Eating
While eating predates the rise of humans on the earth, modern-day competitive eating developed only within the last century. Way before the days of timers and hot dogs, there existed hungry Homo sapiens learning how to catch prey and forage for food. I suppose that after humans learned to obtain and store food in large quantities, some of them sat around at different points in human history and, perhaps out of boredom or curiosity, decided to see who could eat the most food in one sitting. These generally spontaneously-planned eating splurges gradually evolved to informally events which were organized and announced in advance, included more participants, and even awarded prizes. Ryan Nerz, author of Eat This Book, singles out America as the location where it all started, where starving foreigners found bountiful harvests and celebrated their gratitude every Thanksgiving, which he describes as “a family-oriented, untimed, unsanctioned nationwide eating contest” (56). In the early twentieth centry, pie-eating contests became standard events at state and county fairs, the purpose being for fun and excitement rather than for competition (Nerz 56).
The 1916 Coney Island hot-dog-eating contest was the earliest documented event of its kind, supposedly won by Booklyn construction worker Jim Mullin who ate ten hot dogs in twelve minutes (Nerz 58). Thus the famous annual hot dog event was born, used to promote the sale of Nathan’s hot dogs in the 1970s and later mainly to provide entertainment (Patel 77). Eventually, a more systematic set of rules was developed as the competitors became more serious about the whole event. About a century after the first contest, Japanese professional speed eater Takeru Kobayashi won the event in 2001, blowing away his competition with fifty hot dogs in twelve minutes, five times the number of hot dogs the legendary original winner Mullin ate (Nerz 65).
Brothers George and Richard Shea, who in 1997 founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), turned “what had been a parody of sport into a competitive sport,” garnering the support of sports writers as well as a general fan base in the US, writes Rakhi Patel, contributor to Diets and Dieting: a cultural encyclopedia (77). Under the IFOCE, eating competitions grew popular in other countries around the world and expanded to different foods, such as chicken wings, hamburgers, hard-boiled eggs, and even birthday cakes (Nerz 298-302). Records were set, broken, and logged for the most amount of a type of food eaten within a particular time limit. Today, the IFOCE has expanded to include over six thousand professional competitive eaters, the top few of whom have earned celebrity status, notes Patel (77). Each year, crowds flock to the major events– the annual Fourth of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Brooklyn, the annual Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, the annual Krystal Square Off in Chattanooga (Major League Eating). Complete with big-screen televisions, camera crews from various television stations, and scantily clad girls, these events entertain a large audience which includes both the die-hard fans which attend the live events and average television-watching American families sitting at home (Nerz 5). In addition to many minor events, the IFOCE holds about eighty major competitions each year, broadcasting the largest of their events on channels such as SpikeTV, ESPN, and Fox reaching millions of viewers each year (Major League Eating).
Due to the existence of a governing body, a sizeable pool of serious contestants, as well as strong audience interest, serious supporters have pushed for competitive eating to be included in the category of “sports” and subsequently for speed eaters to be known as “athletes” (Patel 77-78).
The Road to Self-Destruction
Competitive eating clearly carries negative health effects for those who participate, and the growing seriousness of the competitors only accentuates these problems. In order to keep up with competition, speed eaters need to eat more chili, more ice cream, and more bananas each year, just to win a contest. Again, while ten hot dogs were enough for Mullin to take home the Nathan’s prize in 1916, fifty were needed for Kobayashi to win the same contest in 2001 (Nerz 65). Since normal human beings are simply incapable of eating that much food in one sitting, the training necessary to stomach that amount of food involves regular binges of eating, usually of one type of food. The caloric overdose and diet imbalance naturally lead to eventual health problems. Today, many of the speed eaters are so gigantic that they are able to tower over (and even “engulf”) average eaters. Patel notes the connection between competitive eating and these health problems, nicely stating, “Ironically, at the moment when obesity became the world’s newest ‘epidemic,’ binge-eating became a sport” (77).
It is quite easy to imagine how competitive eating is detrimental to the health of speed eaters. Not only do they overeat (and thus run the risk of health problems associated with overeating), but they also eat at a speed which makes normal everyday eaters seem like snails. A study was done by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to determine the effects of speed eating on the stomach, using barium fluoroscopy to observe physiological changes. Scientists Marc Levine and his colleagues imaged and compared the stomachs of a speed eater and a normal eater while they ate hot dogs as fast as they could. While the stomach of the control subject showed regular hot-dog processing and minimal expansion, the stomach of the speed eater exhibited significant expansion while hot dog chunks remained in the stomach signifying abnormally slow food processing (Levine 684). Moreover, the stomach of the competitive eater only returned to its normal size approximately several days after the experiment. In addition to imaging, the scientists also noticed behavioral differences between the two subjects during the experiment. The normal eater complained of discomfort after eating seven hot dogs, stopping the experiment. The speed eater, on the other hand, never felt any discomfort through the duration of the experiment, and was forced to stop eating additional hot dogs even after devouring thirty six, as the experimenters became concerned about a possible stomach rupture (Levine 683-684).
Levine and his colleagues make several generalizations from their observations in these experiments. The stomach of a speed eater expands in order to accommodate an influx of food within a short period of time (684). In addition, peristalsis, the involuntary muscular process which transports food out of the stomach, is significantly reduced in speed eaters (684). The researchers note that if these alterations to normal stomach physiology and function became permanent, speed eaters would become affected by complications such as nausea and vomiting (686). Furthermore, because speed eaters train themselves to gradually eat great amounts of food at a time, the loss of feeling fullness or satiation may lead to obesity and weight gain through overeating (686). While the competitive eaters are able to control themselves and portion their food at a younger age, they may lose the self-discipline as they age and retire (686). Levine and his team conclude:
[S]peed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior that over time could lead to morbid obesity, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for gastric surgery. For all these reasons, we believe the IFOCE should make it a high priority to follow up their athletes and former athletes to fully assess the long-term risks of competitive eating for its participants. (686)
Because serious, organized competitive eating (in other words, the IFOCE) has only existed for about ten to fifteen years, scientists have not had the opportunity to conduct longitudinal or long-term studies on competitive eaters, especially on ones who have retired from intense competition. However, the experiment conducted by Levine and his colleagues suggests that competitive eating likely causes rather unattractive long-term health complications. Combining these enormous health problems with a general social aversion to gluttony, wastefulness, and poor table manners, speed eating appears to be self-destructive and uncouth activity that should be avoided. Surprisingly, however, its current participation and viewership indicate otherwise.
The Growl of the Gurgitator
The popularity of competitive eating is driven by both the speed eaters as well as the audience who view the so-called “sport.” And since speed eaters are the ones who bear the negative health impacts of competitive eating, it naturally leads to the investigation of the reasoning behind the competitive eaters with regards to their health as well as their actual motivations to compete.
In Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture, John O’Connor documents his experience following Eric “Badlands” Booker through eating competitions, closely recording his training routine, strategies, eating habits, and techniques, while recording his thoughts and opinions through frequent friendly interviews. Being one of the bigger contestants, the 420-pound giant easily intimidates other speed eaters by his sheer size. However, Badlands’s friendliness and frankness wins him many supporters, which allows O’Connor to peek inside the mind of a speed eater.
With no apparent coaches or instructors, competitors such as Badlands develop their own techniques and strategies to tackle different foods. Without sports trainers, they are also on their own when it comes to managing their own health. When O’Connor asks Badlands whether he worries about his own health, the eater answers, “My doctor says as long as I don’t eat too much during the off-season I’ll be okay” (20). But with the lack of longitudinal studies, doctors do not have the necessary data in order to give competitive eaters clear directions or limitations on what or how often to eat. Thus, speed eaters such as Badlands take false comfort knowing that even their doctors tell them their lifestyle can continue if they carefully maintain their bodies. In addition, Badlands notes the growing number of skinnier speed eaters, who he says may have an advantage because their stomachs can theoretically stretch more, asserting that he plans to lose weight to “be in shape to be competitive in these contests” (O’Connor 20). However, this may be simply a misconception of maintaining one’s health, for the Levine study suggests that the repeated expansion of the stomach may cause long-term problems for competitive eaters regardless of their weight or body shape. Speed eaters are somehow able to justify to themselves that their “sport” is not as harmful to their health through this type of rationale.
So even if speed eaters can accept the health consequences, what exactly makes them want to actually pursue competitive eating? Nowadays, the top few speed eaters are able to earn six figures from eating contests, but there are other more conventional (and less self-destructive) ways of earning that amount of money. There are also many other (and equally ridiculous) ways to garner fame. Badlands’s own response to this question centers on his joy of being a fast eater, remarking to O’Connor, “I just loved it from the first day I tried it…Just being able to know that I can eat this food faster than anyone in the world, it’s a great feeling” (21). His motive seems rather simple, to beat others in an activity regardless of its consequences.
Jason Fagone, another journalist who follows competitive eaters, also attempts to find the motivations of competitive eaters, documenting his findings in his book, Horsemen of the Esophagus. After his research and interviews, he notes that most of the competitive eaters that he followed were average Americans who have normal families and normal jobs. Fagone summarizes their motivations in the first chapter, stating that to them, “Eating…was fun. It was a chance to compete, to travel the country and make a little money, or at least break even. It was a chance to be on ESPN” (21). In essence, like Badlands’s own comment, the motivation behind competitive eaters is driven by simple human nature. While the eaters may desire money and fame, competitive eating provides an exciting opportunity to escape from daily work and family life. And on top of that, it doesn’t require them to think of a new idea or learn a new skill, but rather merely build upon an activity that they have been doing for all of their lives.
The Roar of the Crowd
So if the speed eaters have motivations to pursue this “sport,” where exactly is the satisfaction from the crowd’s perspective in watching speed eaters eat? Each of the actual competitions lasts only about fifteen minutes or so, significantly shorter than the hours or even days needed for die-hard fans to travel to the event sites, making the whole matter seem like a waste of time. During those intense minutes of eating, all of the action occurs on the small table around which the twenty or so contestants sit. The multitude of fans are thus unable to crowd around the table and directly watch the actual competition, so they are forced to indirectly watch the frenzy on big-screen televisions scattered around the event venue. Everyone watches Kobayashi, Badlands, Jaws, and other famous “gurgitators,” as the IFOCE calls them, do what they all do each day – eat, only really fast, and with no table manners. For both the spectators on site as well as viewers at home, the audience watches the cameras shift from eater to eater methodically breaking down food with their hands and rhythmically shoving the food scraps into their mouths, usually without chewing. Breadcrumbs, thick messy sauce, and leftovers drip and scatter onto the messy table filled with dwindling piles of food, a rather ugly sight that could make anyone hurl. IFOCE emcee and self-taught speed eater Ryan Nerz appropriately describes the many contests he witnesses in his book, stating, “The images on the giant screen [focused on the speed eaters] are arresting – large men eating chicken as fast as they can, surrounded by bare midriffs, hot shorts, and fake breasts [referring to the scantily clad girls]”(5).
However, despite his description of the eating competitions, Nerz offers an explanation as to why there is an audience for competitive eating. Several of his reasons include sex, referring to the scantily clad “Wingettes” who follow and escort the contestants around wing-eating competitions, and America’s overindulgence in food, which he sums up as “Everyman’s dream of the perfect party” (6). However, he notes, after stripping off the meat and getting to the bone, the audience simply wants to find out how much can a single person possibly eat (Nerz 6). Taking a common activity to an extreme is basically what piques their interest, and Nerz reasons, “just as part of the appeal of NASCAR is that everyone drives, the appeal here is that everyone eats” (6). Just as it is hard to explain why people watch NASCAR racers waste gasoline in a time of high oil prices and drive in circles as fast as they can only to end up in the same spot, it is equally difficult to reason why people watch “gurgitators” stuff themselves with fifty servings of hot dogs at a time when obesity is rampant while poverty and hunger are still big issues in parts of America. However, it seems that Americans love to watch others push boundaries and break records, and for everyday tasks such as eating or driving, Americans also display curiosity toward finding the physical limits of these very relatable activities.
At the “stomach” of it all
When it comes to the popularity of competitive eating, the reasons boil down to American culture. While it has always been a land of freedom and opportunity, America has also fostered an environment for finding and exceeding limits, sometimes regardless of consequences. For example, the Ford Motor Company developed and implemented the assembly line, drastically raising the production rate of Model T cars at the expense of its workers, who began to suffer from boredom and injuries from repeating the same motion for hours on a daily basis. The same can be said about speed eating – “gurgitators” have developed routines to simply eat unimaginable amounts of food in one sitting, even at the expense of their own health.
American culture has also come to embrace the gross, the odd, and the quirky. In an environment that encourages freedom of speech and expression, America has churned out the unconventional, such as Woodstock, MTV’s show “Real World,” and Lady Gaga. It is in this environment that competitive eating also gained ground and popularity, that people became willing to pay to watch fat people grossly stuff themselves with food only to lose to a skinny foreigner such as Kobayashi.
In a nutshell, Nerz summarizes the reasoning behind the popularity of competitive eating in the first chapter of his book – “The competitive-eating circuit is a haven for grown men and women to toss aside their worldly cares and act like kids again” (25). Perhaps in a stricter culture, this mentality would not have developed, but it was nowhere other than the land of plentiful food and opportunities to do almost anything that speed eating developed into this American phenomenon. It started with county fair pie-eating contests and evolved into televised events featuring a close eating match between a large basketball player and four average Joes against one world-class hot dog eater. And it is because of the environment fostered by American culture that average people today are able to nonchalantly cast aside health concerns to set new limits in a mundane routine activity, backed by an audience fascinated by the unconventional, the disgusting, and the desire to answer the simple question, “so how much can someone eat?”.
Fagone, Jason. Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
Levine, Marc, et al. “Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences.” American Journal of Roentgenology 189 (2007): 681-686.
Major League Eating & International Federation of Competitive Eating. 4 Dec. 2010. <http://www.ifoce.com/about>.
Nerz, Ryan. Eat This Book: a Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006.
O’Connor, John. “Badlands: Portrait of a Competitive Eater.” Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Cultures 6.3 (2006): 16-23.
Patel, Rakhi. “Eating Competitions.” Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia. 1st ed. 2008
Patrick Wu graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Engineering and a minor in Management Science as part of MIT’s Class of 2011. During his time as a student, he competed as a member of the MIT Varsity Pistol Team, served as president of the MIT Table Tennis Club, and supported MIT freshmen as a Resident Associate Advisor. Having lived in Massachusetts for almost twenty years, Patrick is a fan of the Boston Red Sox and loves the occasional bowl of New England clam chowder.