Eric "Badlands" Booker
Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, Crazy Legs Conti, Eric "Badlands" Booker, Elizabeth "Rubber Gut" Canady, Ivan "The Invader" Hickman, Joey Chestnut, Gentleman Joe Menchetti - sound like a Mafia family to you? Well, they are not. They are "gurgitators", competitive eating contestants.
Also known as speed eating, this is a fairly new "sport" that's becoming more and more popular where participants compete to consume massive quantities of food in a set amount of time, usually 15 minutes or less. It is most celebrated in the U.S. and Japan, where prizes can be $10,000 or more.
Cookie Jarvis in action
The "sport" has its roots in county fairs (think pie or watermelon eating contests). Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest has been held every July 4th since 1916 at Coney Island. With the advent of television this contest and others have made these competitions crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Takeru Kobayashi. Image from his website.
There are two main camps for competitive eating: The IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating), founded in 1997 and now better known as Major League Eating; and All Pro Eating, formerly known as the Association of Competitive Eaters, which is a break-off group from IFOCE who left over contractual issues. One major difference is that All Pro Eating advocates the picnic style rules, which means that contestants are not allowed to dip their food into liquids before consuming them.
Dipping foods in liquid, usually water but also soft drinks or other beverages, is one of the techniques used by participants. This softens the food, making it easier and quicker to chew and swallow. Food, which is usually one type but varied, can be eaten any way - in separate components (i.e., hot dogs first, then buns, as long as both are eaten in equal amounts), whole, or in pieces. Japanese champion Teraku Kobayashi has his own style, which he calls the "Solomon Technique" (also called "Japanesing") which involves breaking a hot dog in half, then stuffing both halves into his mouth at once.
There are universal rules: no vomiting during or right after a contest. This is called a "reversal" and disqualifies one immediately. "Chipmunking" is the practice of stuffing as much food in your mouth as possible just before the time runs out. This is usually allowed, but a contestant has a limited time to finish consuming the mouthful.
All foods must be consumed in a designated time period. This can range from 7 to 15 minutes, or longer. Any food left on serving pieces is counted against the total. Prize monies can make this "sport" a career, and some competitors earn their living this way.
Sonya Thomas. The burger is almost bigger than her!
There is no standard body type that excels in competitive eating. Participants range from the rather petite Sonya Thomas (weighing an average of 124 pounds) to Eric Booker (weighing about 420 pounds). Kobayashi has a body worthy of a bodybuilder. It has been posited that someone too fat or too muscular would not do well, as that fat or muscle would impede the stomach's expansion, but Booker and Kobayashi prove that false.
Sonya Thomas eats one large meal a day, usually from a buffet.
Eric Booker during a contest. Photo by Ed Grabianowski.
Takeru Kobayashi. Image from his website.
Some competitors train, although the IFOCE warns against it. Since stomach elasticity is the key to success, many drink large amounts of water, or drink lots of water with low calorie meals like veggies and salads to stretch stomach capacity. Some also chew huge amounts of gum to build up jaw strength. Those who do "train" will often do so for weeks or months before an event, often with the food from the impending contest.
The dangers of this lifestyle, aside from the obvious ones of weight gain or obesity is high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There can be stomach perforations, especially if there are ulcers. Drinking large amounts of water can lead to water intoxication, a condition where the electrolytes in the blood become too diluted. Gastroparesis is a dangerous problem. Also called stomach paralysis, the stomach loses its ability to contract and to empty itself. Some of the side effects are chronic indigestion, nausea, and vomiting.
Consider the massive amounts of calories that are consumed at these events. If each hot dog is 150 calories, and each bun is 100 calories, then eating 50 hot dogs will total 12,500 calories. The USDA recommendation of daily calories for an adult male is 2,300.
Sixteen cups of mayonnaise in 8 minutes? No thanks!
This is a record list from 2005 that gives an idea of the amounts consumed. No more current chart found.
If you will be in the vicinity of Davenport, Iowa tomorrow (3/19/11), you may want to try your hand at the Rhythm City World Catfish Eating Championship. Last year's winner consumed 6.7 pounds in ten minutes. You could win $2,500. But then consider all the people in the world who are starving. This "sport" is not only gluttonous but rather shameful in light of world starvation. As usual these events boil down to money. Too bad the money isn't being spent easing world hunger.
Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of the IFOCE.