Competitive Eating

Competitive eating is a sport in which participants compete against each other to consume large quantities of food in a short time period. Contests are typically less than 15 minutes in length, with the person consuming the most food being declared the winner. Competitive eating is most popular in the United States and Japan, where organized professional eating contests often offer $10,000 or more in prize money. Competitive eaters are sometimes known as ‘gurgitators,’ a word used by those close to the sport and an assumed opposite of regurgitation.

The chief criticism of competitive eating is the message the gluttonous sport sends in an age of rising obesity levels among Americans and the example it sets for today’s youth. Others contend that competitive eating is an example of Western gluttony at a time when others around the world are starving. Gastroparesis, also known as stomach paralysis, is also a concern among those who routinely stretch their stomachs beyond capacity. The condition may lead to the stomach’s inability to contract and lose its ability to empty itself.

Traditionally, eating contests (usually involving pies) were events at county fairs. The recent surge in the popularity of competitive eating is due in large part to televised coverage of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, an annual holiday tradition that has been held annually on July 4 since the 1970s at Coney Island. Recently, this contest has been dominated by IFOCE eater Takeru Kobayashi, who won it consistently from 2001 through 2006; he was dethroned in 2007 by Joey Chestnut. In 2008, Chestnut and Kobayashi tied at 59 hot dogs in 10 minutes (the time span had previously been 12 minutes), and Chestnut won in an eatoff in which he was the first of the two competitors to finish eating 5 hot dogs in overtime, earning Chestnut his second consecutive title. In the 1990s, competitive eating was popular in Japan but is now frowned on by many.

The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) hosts more than 100 ‘Major League Eating’ events worldwide every year. A smaller organized league, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters (AICE), established by former IFOCE competitive eater Arnie ‘Chowhound’ Chapman, also sanctions contests. AICE, which adopted the title All Pro Eating Promotions in 2008, differs from the IFOCE with its adherence to ‘picnic style’ competitive eating rules which forbids the dunking of any contest foods in water, a practice used by many IFOCE eaters, and one believed to speed the chewing and swallowing process.

Other eating contests sponsored by restaurants can involve a challenge to eat large or extraordinarily spicy food items, including giant steaks, hamburgers, and curries in a set amount of time. Those who finish the item are often rewarded by not having to pay for the item, or with a t-shirt and the addition of their name and/or photo on a wall of challenge victors.

The type of food used in contests varies greatly, with each contest typically only using one type of food (e.g. a hot dog eating contest). Foods used in professional eating contests include hamburgers, hot dogs, pies, pancakes, chicken wings, asparagus, pizza, ribs, whole turkeys, among many other types of food.

Many eaters will attempt to put as much food in their mouths as possible during the final seconds of a contest, a practice known by professionals as ‘chipmunking.’ If chipmunking is allowed in a contest, eaters are given a reasonable amount of time (typically less than two minutes) to swallow the food or risk a deduction from their final totals. Competitors are expected to maintain a relatively clean eating surface throughout the contest. Excess debris after the contest may result in a deduction from the eater’s final totals. If, at any point during or immediately after the contest, a competitor regurgitates any food, he or she will be disqualified. Vomiting, also known as a ‘reversal.’

Many professional competitive eaters undergo rigorous personal training in order to increase their stomach capacity, speed and efficiency with various foods. Stomach elasticity is usually considered the key to eating success, and competitors commonly train by drinking large amounts of water over a short time to stretch out the stomach. Others combine the consumption of water with large quantities of low calorie foods such as lettuce. Some eaters chew large amounts of gum in order to build jaw strength.

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