The crazy world of competitive eating

Eating for a living: it sounds like the ideal job. But do you have what it takes to be a professional ‘gurgitator’? And more to the point, would you want to?

Society

We don’t generally consider eating to be a spectator sport. But in the USA, food competitions are big business. And by ‘food competitions’, we don’t mean cooking up tasty dishes with great skill and panache, but shovelling as many hot dogs, chicken wings or pizza slices down your throat as you can in the shortest possible time.

It might sound rather unsavoury to most of us, but in America, competitive eating is proving very popular with food fans. The ‘sport’ even has its own governing body, with over 100 national eating contests a year, official rules and records, and total prize money in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Miki Sudor nearing her victory. The Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, New York City, 4 July 2014.
@Shutterstock / akatz

Of course, eating contests are nothing new.

They have their roots in America’s village festivals back in the early twentieth century, where competitors were challenged to eat as many pies as they could to celebrate the end of harvest. But since then, things have changed beyond recognition. Sponsorship by some of the major food companies, coupled with US reality TV shows like the evocatively named Gutbusters and The Fear Factor, have brought big money and attracted millions of dedicated fans. The biggest events, like the hot dog contest that has been run by Nathan’s in New York since 1916, the Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, or the Krystal Square Off hamburger eating competition held in Tennessee, easily attract up to 40 000 spectators. Eating has gone professional.

Pies and cupcake eating contests often forbid the use of hands. Capitol Hill Independence Day Picnic, Pie Eating Contest, 2010.
©theworldisfun

It may seem like an easy way to make a living, bringing a new breed of ‘food celebrities’ onto our television screens and promoting this or that brand of food or restaurant chain. But there’s a distinct downside to all this gluttony. Besides the moral issue of eating to excess while others starve, there are the unnatural and unhealthy training regimes these ‘gurgitators’ put themselves through. Some consume large amounts of food or drink litres of water to expand their stomachs; others fast for several days to work up an appetite, chewing gum to build jaw strength. How would you like to regularly gorge on cabbage to keep your stomach in tip-top gurgitating form?

I want to know more.