Competitive Eating – A Tradition of Excess

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Hot Dogs, Image from MorgueFileYesterday , thousands watched in awe (and maybe a little disgust) as Joey Chestnut won the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, NY.  In a nation with a huge obesity rate and a penchant for tradition and competition, it’s only natural that each year people come out in droves to witness this 10 minute face-stuffing food extravaganza.  But other than the obvious risk of gaining a little or possibly a LOT of weight, are there other downsides to competitive eating?  What about the benefits?  Here’s a deeper look at just what makes these contests so grossly enthralling.

How Did Competitive Eating Start?

While most may not realize it, eating contests have been around for a pretty long time.  According to Time, it goes all the way back to the 13th century with a Norse myth of a God and servant having a battle to see who could consume the most.    But while Gods may have competed against mere mortals in those days, in more recent times it’s become a man to man and now even man to woman race to prove who is truly the best.  This tradition is most commonly associated with the Nathan’s which is now the biggest contest around.  Nathan’s competition is said by Time to have started in 1916 as a contest between four immigrants to prove who was most patriotic.  During this 95-year tenure, the contest has only been cancelled twice.  Nathan’s website says this happened in 1941, as a protest to the war in Europe, and in 1971, as a protest to civil unrest and the reign of free love.   With a history like this it’s difficult to see much of a downside to something now considered by many as a “sport.”

Is Competitive Eating Dangerous?

Unlike other “sports,” crowds flock to these over-indulgence events to see their fellow man and/or woman take calories in instead of the usual opposite effect of athletic events.   However, like their sometimes leaner counterparts many of these athletes with appetites do some major training in preparation for their big shot at glory.

Contestants like Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champion Joey Chestnut are among those who train as if preparing for a marathon run.   While Chestnut does have several training sessions of stuffing himself to the gills prior to the big day, he also has a few eating habits that might sound a bit perplexing.  An article in Forbes magazine reports, “He fasts in between, takes protein supplements and begins each morning with a half-gallon of milk.”  The article continues, “Two and a half days before to the July 4 hot dog contest, Chestnut will stop eating solid foods and nourish himself with supplements, milk and lots of water to empty his system.”

So it’s not all just hot dogs and pride, but a pretty strict routine that gets eaters into fighting shape.  But could all of this gluttony be an unhealthy stressor on the body’s system?  The true medical decision is a bit split.   There is always the opportunity for competitors to go just one bite too far, leaving them with a serious medical condition.   There is the threat of “stomach perforations in people with undiagnosed ulcers,” Shanthi Sitaraman, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta told WebMD.   Dr. David Metz, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania, added in the same article warnings against water intoxication and gastroparesis.   Water intoxication can happen due to dilution of electrolytes in the blood since many eaters both drink large amounts of water as well as dip food in water to make it go down easier during competitions.  Gastroparesis can happen if the stomach is stretched too much, too many times and results in sufferers no longer being able to empty their stomach.  Doctors also fear that watching tournaments like this could have an influence on both obesity and eating disorders.  However, in the end, as long as the eaters are taking care of themselves and not consistently eating portions similar to those ingested on game day, chances are they will live a relatively healthy life.

What’s the Point?

With overstuffing and health risks, is there an actual point to all this maximum capacity gobbling?   For contestants, television channels and restaurants the answer is a big YES!

While it’s always a great feeling to accomplish a challenge, it’s even better to know that around 50,000 people are watching on TV and that if you win you could take home a treasure of thousands of dollars.  These promises are what inspire competitors like Chestnut and his counterparts to down gallon after gallon of milk or work their way through Texas-sized steaks.   Contests like The Krystal Square Off promise the biggest prizes in the eating world ($20,000 as of 2009) for the top dogs, according to Business Pundit.

Fame can also be a huge draw, not only for contestants but also the restaurant sponsoring the contest.  The Major League of Eating helps these locations go from being just another restaurant to the place to go for the biggest or most or best whatever their speciality may be.  The MLE also helps to ensure that contests get maximum media coverage.  On their website they state, “Media that routinely cover events include CNN, BBC, NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Sports Illustrated, FHM Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Smithsonian Magazine, US Magazine, Time Magazine and The Times of London.”  This coverage is also supplemented by internet and local coverage along with word of mouth and visits to the location by shows like Man vs. Food.

And then there is the interest of sponsor which could mean big bucks for contestants, restaurants and TV.   Since there is so much more to the contest than just the eating (think drinks, indigestion and even some stretchy sweatpants for post-contest comfort) this means there are endless opportunities for sponsors to leave their impression on avid viewers and attendees.  However, these spots are only up for grabs if the price is right.  And really who would want to pass up a chance to be seen as THE ketchup of the food version of the Super Bowl?!  These sponsorships can also go beyond just the single event to becoming the only one of its specialty to be served at the competition’s restaurant or the only brand of stretchy sweatpants the champion wears for the next year or more.   This means even bigger money and brand recognition for everyone involved.  The MLE says previous sponsors of some of their biggest events (they hold about 80 a year) include: “Procter & Gamble (Pepto-Bismol), Heinz Ketchup, Old Navy, Netflix, Coca-Cola, 7-Eleven, ESPN, Jimmy John’s, La Costena, Harrah’s Entertainment, Isle of Capri Casinos, Cedar Fair Entertainment, Johnsonville Sausage and Roy Rogers.”

While press and money never hurt, there is also one more common reason for an eating contest.  Like any good athlete or sport, competitive eating has a heart somewhere under all those hot dogs.   Several restaurants hold contests to see who can chomp down the most with all of the proceeds going to charity.  In QSR Magazine, the Boston arm of the Qdoba franchise was applauded for its involvement in creating an event to raise money for the Kevin Youkilis Hits for Kids Foundation by having an eating contest along with musicians and more.  And while sponsors and television coverage may be a great perk, it can be an even better feeling to know that all that chow is going towards a great cause.

Would you enter an eating contest?  We want to know why or why not.  If you have already participated, we’d love to hear your story too.  Please share with us below.

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