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.
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?
Studies(1) have shown that over-eating to such an extent causes the stomach to distend to an unnatural degree, forming a big flaccid bag capable of accommodating huge amounts of food. This huge stomach occupies most of the gurgitator’s abdomen, and is just about the nearest a man can get to experiencing pregnancy! In the long term, the expansion of the stomach during competition could very well become irreversible. Losing its ability to contract and empty could ultimately require gastrectomy. Over-eating could also lead to morbid obesity. Worse still, one competitor choked to death when food lodged in his throat at a hot dog eating contest in Custer, South Dakota.
To prevent abuse and look after competitors’ health and safety, the International Federation of Competitive Eating has established a set of rules governing eating contests. To be eligible to take part, all competitors must be aged 18 or over, with each contest lasting no more than 10 or 12 minutes on average. You can soak your food in water for easier swallowing, but for no more than 5 seconds. Emergency medical personnel must always be on hand. And if you vomit, you’re out (this is called a ‘reversal of fortune’ among those in the know).