Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?
As eating contests become more popular, some experts are concerned about the risks.
Eating contests used to be strictly county-fair stuff. Now, they're becoming
a serious sport.
This summer, Joey Chestnut ingested a record 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes at
the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Sixty-six is just a number, until you make a comparison: How many hot dogs do
you think you could down in 12 minutes? Maybe five? Six?
An estimated 50,000 people were in attendance at Coney Island to watch
Chestnut stuff his face. Many more watched on ESPN, which began televising the
competitions in 2004.
"When I started doing these contests, there were maybe fifty to a
hundred people watching," Chestnut tells WebMD. Chestnut has only been
competing for two years. "Now," he says, "there are tons of people,
whether it's a small or big venue. People are asking me for
As the size of the audience for competitive eating has grown, so has the
prize money. Chestnut won $10,000 along with his Yellow Belt at the Nathan's
The level of competition has also been kicked up a notch. The Nathan's
competition dates to 1916, but back in 2000 the record was a measly 25 dogs.
This year, all 10 of the top finishers beat that mark.
Chestnut -- ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Federation of
Competitive Eating -- attributes his accomplishments to hard work, not
gluttony. But many doctors worry that competitive eating can have dangerous
consequences. And some dietitians worry that the sport sends the wrong message
at a time when obesity is growing to epidemic proportions.
Secrets of Competitive Eating
Chestnut, 23, a project engineer from San Jose, Calif., says his success
results from intensive training. "I slowly make my body adapt to my
goal," he says, comparing himself to a bodybuilder or a marathoner.
Chestnut trains about once a week, eating mass quantities of whatever food
he's expected to consume for the next eating contest. What kinds of foods? The
list includes hamburgers, hot wings, oysters, deep-fried asparagus, key lime
pie, chicken wings, cheesecake, and lobster.
Chestnut also practices by drinking up to a gallon of milk in a single
sitting, which he says trains his stomach to expand.
Chestnut says he prepares carefully for practice and competition. In the
days before a competition, he stops eating solid foods and limits his diet to
"Psychologically, I like to go in hungry," he says. "If I see on
the scale that I have dropped weight, I can easily imagine an enormous amount
of food inside me."
For a day or two after most competitions or practices, Chestnut admits that
he "doesn't feel so good." He goes back on the protein supplement diet
as his stomach empties out, he says.