Nov. 28, 2022

The Dangerous World of Competitive Eating

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This week’s episode is all about the fascinating, mildly grotesque, and sometimes deadly world of eating competitions.

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American Heart Association. (2000, November 21). Heavy Meals May Trigger Heart Attacks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2022

Bartolone, P. (2012). Olympic-Sized Appetites: The World Of Competitive Eating. NPR.

CNN Wire Staff (2012). Roach-eating contest winner choked to death. CNN.,Siegel%20Reptiles%20in%20Deerfield%20Beach.

Collier R. Competitive consumption: ten minutes. 20,000 calories. Long-term trouble? CMAJ. 2013 Mar 5;185(4):291-2. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-4397. Epub 2013 Feb 4. PMID: 23382254; PMCID: PMC3589306.

Farrell, D. J., & Bower, L. (2003). Fatal water intoxication. Journal of clinical pathology, 56(10), 803–804.

Haimes, N. (2019). The Good, The Bad, and The Hungry. Documentary.

Levine, M. S., Spencer, G., Alavi, A., & Metz, D. C. (2007). Competitive speed eating: Truth and consequences. American Journal of Roentgenology (1976), 189(3), 681-686. 

Major League Eating (2022). Eating Contests.

Mason, D. (n.d.) The Bizarre True Story Of Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater Of Kent. Fascinate.

Mayo Clinic (2022). Prader-Willi syndrome.

Miller, J. (2017). Student dies after choking during pancake-eating competition. NY Post.

Muller, G. (2014). The High Art of Competitive Eating.

Peter, J. (2015). Inside the disturbing dangers of competitive eating. USA TODAY.

Poisui, P. (2021). The Truth About Joey Chestnut's Feud With Kobayashi. Mashed.

Seladi-Schulman, J. (2020). How Long Does Food Stay in Your Stomach?. Healthline.

Suddath, C. (2008). A Brief History of Competitive Eating. TIME.,8599,1820052,00.html

Tepfenhart (2014). Competitive Eating: A History.

Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


S: Hi everyone! I’m Sarah.


B:& I’m Becca! And you’re listening to Unsavory. 


S: Sometimes doing this podcast is so cool. We tell these stories that have some sort of element of true crime and food, but it’s always important to remember that there are real people at the heart of these stories. We want to share a listener comment that we got on one of our episodes, the Boston Mollassacre. Do you want to read it? 


B: Yes of course! This was sent to us by@kmceleste on Instagram.Fun fact: about ten years ago, we were visiting my great-aunt and my great-uncle who we knew pretty well but mostly from them visiting my grandparents. Out of the blue, my great-uncle motioned for me to follow him. He leads me into their bedroom and showed me one framed photograph he had on his dresser. He stated, “This is my real father” I looked at him, clearly lost by the statement. His “real father” (or biological father really) was killed in the molasses spill when my great uncle was just a child. And my great-uncle kept that one photograph framed on his dresser until the day he died. After he told me about it, I did some research and sure enough his fatheres name is listed among the victims of the molasses spill. Unbelievable. But that’s how I learned about the “Great Molasses Flood” of 1919”


S: Wow, what an interesting connection. 


B: Yes…so interesting. And as you said, so important to remember that we are talking about real people. 


S: OKAY, on to today’s episode which is so. Freaking. Good. We’re talking all about the fascinating, mildly grotesque, and sometimes deadly world of eating competitions, and it’s wilder than I had ever imagined. 


B:Really?! I’m so excited. 


S: Yes! I had such a blast researching this one. Ready? 


B:Let’s do it. 


Intro music


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S: Shout out to my sources, primarily a 2019 documentary called “The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry” directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes, a journal article called “Competitive speed eating: Truth and consequences” by Levine, Spencer, Alavi & Metz, and of course, the Major League Eating website. All these references and many more are linked in the show notes on our website, as always. 


S: So competitive eating is a divisive sport, and yes, many actually consider it a sport. On one hand, it’s a competition with a dedicated fanbase, a professional league, world records, over 100 annual international competitions, cash prizes, and corporate sponsorships. And itdoesrequire a combination of natural ability and trained skill! 


B: Definitely sounds like a sport. 


It does! And on the other hand, eating is not an athletic skill, it’s a basic human function. And when turned into a competition, it’s excessive, wasteful, and honestly, kind of nauseating to watch. The competitors look intensely uncomfortable while competing, often appearing like they are physically in pain. Some have described competitive eating as a self-destructive behaviour that could even be considered a form of self-abuse. And if you’re someone who cares about food insecurity and food waste, it can feel almost morally wrong to watch people shoving extreme amounts of food in their face without even taking a second to savour the flavour. 


B:This is exactly how I feel about those rage rooms where people go and smash perfectly good furniture and dishes…it seems so wasteful. Makes me cringe.  


S: Totally! So wasteful. But at those rage rooms are probably cathartic, and when you’re done, you would probably feel a sense of calm. After an eating competition, I bet the participants just feel awful. Plus, it’s a safety issue, with the American Medical Association recognizing "competitive speed eating as an unhealthy eating practice with potential adverse consequences." So people have mixed feelings. I have mixed feelings, but I can confidently say that there is much more to competitive eating than what meets the eye. 


Competitive eating isn’t exactly something that’s been popular throughout history. As we know from some of our previous episodes, there have been many periods throughout time, and even today, where food wasn’t something that could be wasted. For centuries and centuries of human existence, feasting on food has been something experienced only by the very wealthy. 


The earliest documented mention of any sort of food competition is from a 13th century Norse anthology called Prose Edda in which Norse God Loki challenges his servant Logi to an eating contest. After that, we jump to the 17th century, when a man named Nicholas Wood akaThe Great Eater of Kent, was known for gobbling up mass amounts of food in one sitting, such as 60 eggs, a lamb shank, and multiple pies. His bottomless stomach gained a reputation and he drew crowds at local fairs, eventually turning his eating into a competition by inviting people to challenge him. His career was allegedly cut short when he ate a lamb shoulder, bone and all, and lost all of his teeth. 


B:Wait…he lost his teeth in the competition? This is intense. Such dedication…


Right? It’s all legend, but it does make me wonder if he had a condition that caused extreme hunger. Anyways, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the Industrial Revolution started to change how we view food. Technologies like refrigeration, canning, and other processing techniques improved the quantity of food available in North America. Other sorts of food and agricultural competitions started popping up across America, like the best local crops, best pies, and eventually, pie eating contests.The first recorded pie eating contest took place in 1878 inToronto. (B:No way!) It was organised as a charity fundraising event and won by Albert Piddington, although it is not known how many pies he ate.By 1900, pie eating contests were quite popular all over America, traditionally at county fairs.


But competitive eating wouldn’t start to morph into the sport that it is today until the 1900s. In 1916, a man named Nathan Handwerker opened up a small Coney Island hot dog stand called Nathan's Famous and started hosting his own hot dog eating contest every 4th of July. It’s said that the first ever competition was actually between 4 immigrants that decided to join the contest to see who was the most patriotic. According to the legend, the irish immigrant was victorious with a total of 13 hotdogs (buns included). The hot dog eating contest would continue every year, but it was quite small and attended by only locals.


B:I wonder if they had to pay for all these hot dogs. Pretty smart move on Nathan if they did.


Well, even if he didn’t charge by the dog, starting this hot dog competition was a very smart move. Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest remained relatively unknown until 1972, when two public relations agents, Morty Matz and Max Rosen, took over operations and marketing for the hot dog contest. They hired a young graduate named George Shea and tasked him with taking Nathan’s competition and transforming it from a fun community event into a national sporting event. By the mid-1990s, George and his brother Richard Shea, had increased the contest’s attendance from hundreds to thousands, and other restaurants started to jump on the trend. The Shea brothers seized this opportunity and founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating which has since been renamed Major League Eating. Major League Eating hosts between 80 and 100 competitions a year, featuring some very interesting food competitions, all involving eating as much of a certain food as possible within a specified time frame. Some of my favourites include: fried asparagus, mayonnaise, tiramisu, pepperoni rolls, chicken wings, bugs, spinach, pasta, waffles, tacos, shrimp cocktail, pumpkin pie, and of course, hot dogs. 


B:I can get down with tiramisu and waffles, but bugs?! and Mayo…I don’t know which is worse. Probably the mayo.


No, definitely the bugs. I think I could be a pretty strong competitor with the tiramisu though. To this day, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest remains the most important event in American competitive eating and comes with a $10,000 prize. 


B:Wow. Great prize. But how did this competition make any money? Did they sell tickets?


They don’t really have to, this competition is an iconic American event all by itself! About 35,000 people attend in person and ESPN broadcasts it to millions of viewers, so I think it’s pretty lucrative! I also learned about maybe the most unique eating competition ever: the Zombie Pub Crawl brain eating competition where competitors eat tacos made with pig brains.


B:I actually still think mayo is worse.


Yeah, at least there’s a variety of texture in tacos. Mayo would be so… monotonous and goopy. 


Those who participate in these contests, sometimes called “gurgitators”, mean serious business. Competitive eating is not just about stuffing yourself to the absolute max, there is actually a bit of an art to it. Many eaters engage in regular training to maximize their intake speed and volume. This could include undergoing hypnosis, practicing hand eye coordination, ingesting large amounts of food while purposefully ignoring normal hunger/fullness cues, chugging high volumes of water to expand the stomach, and strengthening the jaw muscles by chewing on rubber balls. 


B:So it’s basically the olympics.


In it’s own special way! And it makes sense that competitors take their sport so seriously, because they are competing for major cash prizes and also the elusive Mustard Yellow Belt. The Mustard Yellow Belt is awarded to the winner of the hot dog eating contest each year. Currently, it is held by the long-time top ranking competitive eater in Major League Eating, Joey Chestnut. 


Joey Chestnut is a prolific eater. He holds world records for eating 17.5lbs of cherry pie in 8 minutes, 10 cups of ramen noodles in 1min50s, 82 tacos in 8 min, 52 cheeseburgers in 10 minutes, 18lb of shrimp cocktail in 8 minutes (that one makes me feel physically nauseous), 28lb of poutine in 10 minutes (that’s like toddler worth of poutine), 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes, 141 hardboiled eggs in 8 minutes, and 76 hotdogs in 10 minutes. He set that last one at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2021, which for the record, is about 20,000 calories in 10 minutes. And the list goes on and on - he currently holds 55 world records and makes over $200,000 per year doing contests. 


B:I just can’t imagine how terrible and uncomfortable you would feel after eating 18lbs of shrimp cocktail. Or the pounds of poutine… I don’t even want to know what the bathroom situation looks like after competition days. 


Agreed, after 141 hardboiled eggs.


Any good sport has some healthy rivalry, and competitive eating is no exception. The biggest rivalry in competitive eating history and the subject of the documentary “the good, the bad, and the hungry” is Kobayashi, a Japanese competitive eater vs Joey Chestnut. Takeru Kobayashi was the undisputed eating champion until Chestnut graced the scene in the early 2000s. Kobayashi had won 6 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Competitions in a row, and his very first year ever competing in 2001, hetripledthe previous world record by eating 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The other contestants were eating like 15-20 hotdogs, and this rookie comes in and just demolishes the competition. After this performance, Kobayashi captivated American audiences and he really helped elevate becuase he didn’t fit the picture of what people assumed a competitive eater would look like. Kobayashi was only about 5’8 and weighed about 58kg or 128lb at the time, and he was muscular and looked fit. And this wasn’t what people expected from a guy who could eat 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes. He also treated competitive eating like a true sport and regularly trained so that he could improve his skill, allegedly jogging for hours and becoming very hungry and then distending his stomach by chugging gallons of water to stretch it out and get the stomach used to the sensation of stretching. 


B:That doesn’t sound safe… 


S: It’s definitely not safe! When such a high volume of water is ingested very quickly it can lead to something called hypervolemic hyponatremia, which is when the sodium concentration drops to dangerously low levels. It could also lead to “water intoxication” which isa potentially fatal disturbance in electrolyte levels due to excessive water intake.  


Kobayashi also regularly feasted on giant meals of low-fat, high-fiber foods like cabbage, which swell in the stomach when combined with water due to the fibre content and actually stay in the stomach longer before breaking down in order to stretch it out.*Kobayashi knew that both speed and stomach capacity are required to win a hot dog eating competition. To maximize speed, his signature technique involves taking two hot dogs at once, removing them from the buns, breaking them in half and shoving them in his mouth, and then dipping the buns in hot water so they go down easier. Many competitive eaters also avoid having to chew by taking multiple, quick small bites as the hot dog goes into their mouth so that they can just swallow right away. 


Joey Chestnut and his brother grew up watching Kobayashi on TV and thought that he was pretty much unbeatable, until they saw him lose a hot dog eating contest to a Grizzly Bear on an episode of Man vs Beast. Joey Chestnut was so inspired by Kobayashi that he decided to start training by grilling hot dogs in his mom's kitchen and feasting. The first competition he ever won was at his breakout performance at a deep fried asparagus eating competition in Stockton California, and from that moment on, he knew that he was destined to eat competitively. 


In 2005 and 2006, Joey finally came up against his idol and greatest rival, Kobayashi, in Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition and he was the first person to ever give Kobayashi a serious run for his money, but Kobayashi was unbeatable. Until July 4, 2007, when Joey Chestnut would finally take home the Mustard Yellow Belt by beating Kobayashi with a record breaking 60 hot dogs. Unfortunately, this would be the last time that Kobayashi and Chestnut would come face to face. The Major League Eating contracts forbade Kobayashi from competing in non-MLE events, including those in his home country of Japan. Kobayashi felt this restricted his freedom to compete, and the contract disputes ultimately led him to sever ties with the organization. In retaliation, the league banned him from competing in MLE competitions, including the 2010 Nathan's hot dog eating contest. 


Kobayashi showed up anyway and rushed the stage in protest, and he ended up being arrested and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. He spent one night in jail and told the New York Post that the food wasn’t geat in jail, he had been given a PB&J sandwich but what he really wanted was hotdogs. 


B:They arrested him?! From the sounds of it, he was the hot dog eating contest. I hope people were outraged. 


You can actually watch the video of his arrest on youtube and it sounds like the crowd is on Kobayashi’s side. 


Now, despite all the drama and prize money and training that goes into these food competitions, I can’t help but think that it’s all a little silly. And it makes you think, is this even really a sport? I think it’s a competition, but I’m not so sure it’s a sport.What do you think so far, Becca? 


B:If golf is a sport, I don’t see why not. Sorry if I’ve offended any golfers out there. (S: Geoff is not going to be happy about that statement!). But I think even chess is considered a sport. And I can see how these eating competitions would get incredibly competitive if it’s something you train for, if you have fans, or it’s something you’re known for.


Yeah, and there is no doubt that the speed eaters take eating seriously. But there are many people who refute the idea that competitive eating is a sport, saying that they consider it more of spectacle, a novelty, or a publicity stunt. Some other reasons that you might not consider it a sport is because eating is a normal, essential activity that people do every day, it’s a basic human need, and it wouldn’t be considered an athletic skill, like running, jumping, swimming, etc. The eaters are undoubtedly exerting themselves and pushing themselves into physical discomfort, but I wouldn’t necessarily call competitive eaters athletes. 


B:Maybe not athletes, but I do see them almost as competitors in a game.


Definitely, there is no doubt that speed eaters are competitive. 


Sport or not, competitive eating is dangerous. One study, entitled “Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences” conducted a controlled trial on a speed eater and an average eater. The two subjects were males of about the same age and the study compared how their bodies reacted to large amounts of hotdogs, and they actually studied the rate of gastric emptying using fluoroscopy and measured changes in abdominal girth as an indication of stomach expansion. The study found that the competitive eater was able to eat significantly more hot dogs than the control subject without feeling fullness or discomfort even after 36 hotdogs, while the control subject experienced strong feelings of fullness after only 7 hot dogs, saying that he felt like he’d be sick if he had another bite. What’s interesting, is that the study noted that the rate of gastric emptying was the same, so it’s not like the competitive eaters food moved on more quickly. In fact, neither subject had any significant movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine during the time of the study, so it seems that the competitive eater had actually trained the ability to distend his stomach further without feeling the usual cues of fullness, discomfort, and nausea.




When the researchers spoke with the competitive eater afterwards, he shared that he trained by forcing himself to consume larger and larger amounts of food despite the sensation of fullness to develop his stomach capacity to stretch. By doing this, he was slowly able to overcome the usual checks and balances associated with eating by pushing himself to consume more and more without acknowledging his fullness cues. 


As you can imagine, this practice does not come without serious consequences. The speed eater shared that he no longer experiences the sensation of fullness and satiety that normally occurs at the end of a meal - he never really feels satisfied and has to constantly be aware of how much he has eaten in order to know when to stop. When questioned on this subject, he shared that being a competitive eater left him incapable of experiencing the usual sensation of fullness and satiety after meals.


This clearly isn’t a healthy way to eat. Our hunger and fullness cues are there for a reason, to help our body regulate energy intake, and overriding them can lead to long term consequences. The researchers suggest that competitive eaters may be at risk for developing chronic diseases associated with excess consumption. There is also the risk that a stomach that is used to being distended will eventually permanently lose its tone becoming incapable of peristalsis or gastric emptying. The study ends with a call to action for the MLE to investigate the long-term risks of competitive eating, which I don’t think has been done yet. 


B:shocker…but I mean, why would they? I feel like simply knowing the dangers of overconsuming in a competitive environment like this would open the floodgates to lawsuits. Wait…have there been any lawsuits?


No, I didn’t find any lawsuits against Major League Eating, the closest was Kobayashi’s dramatic contract negotiations. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one someday, because beyond the theoretical health concerns, there are plenty of documented deaths related to competitive eating competitions. All of the deaths fall into two categories, the most common being death from choking and the second being death from heart attack. 


B:oh no…


Let’s start with choking. On Wikipedia, there are 8 choking deaths listed since 2012. Choking can easily occur when someone is eating too fast and not properly chewing, both of which are happening in eating competitions. Choking occurs when an object partially or completely obstructs the passage of air exchange between the upper airway and the trachea, and if the foreign body cannot be removed, the lack of oxygen caused by choking can result in brain damage or death in four to six minutes. 


B:okay but you would think they’d be required to have paramedics at these things. Or at least people trained in CPR. 


And they typically do! But sometimes they can’t properly clear the airway in time. 


Okay, so Caitlyn Nelson, a 20-year old college student studying social work and vice president of the schools Kappa Delta sorority, was participating in a pancake eating contest on campus at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Witnesses noticed she started choking after her fourth or fifth pancake and a nursing student in the audience quickly jumped into action and began administering CPR. Unfortunately, responding officers were unable to clear her airway and she passed away. 


B:nooo that’s devastating.

Yes, and I should say that that was not at a Major League Eating event. I have another one for you and this one just makes my skincrawl.In October 2012, the Ben Siegel Reptile Store in Deerfield Beach, Florida held a "Midnight Madness" contest in which nearly 30 contestants had to eat as many roaches and worms as they could within four minutes without vomiting. The prize on the line was a female Ivory Ball python. 32-year-old West Palm resident Edward Archbold was going to win the snake for his snake enthusiast friend. Archbold, described by the store owner as a wild and colorful man, would wind up winning the contest, but before he could even claim the snake as his reward, he started throwing up. He was rushed to the hospital where he died. An autopsy later revealed that he died from choking.




Another gentleman, 64 year old Bruce Holland, collapsed while taking part in a chili-pie eating contest at a pub in Queensland, Australia and died shortly after in hospital. Just before he lost consciousness, his final words were “damn that chili pie is hot”. He had only had a couple mouthfuls of pie at the time, and other contestants said that their pie wasn’t particularly hot, so it is possible that it was just poor timing. However, a heavy meal can increase risk of a heart attack in those who have an underlying heart condition or are already living with heart disease. Research has found a fourfold increase in heart attack risk in the two hours after eating a big meal. As the stomach expands, blood shifts towards your digestive system, which shunts blood away from the heart. If you have a pre-existing heart condition, this could increase your risk of having a heart attack. That doesn’t mean most of us need to worry about eating heavy meals on a regular basis, but I do think it’s another good reason that you should probably avoid eating competitions. 


B:ouff, no kidding.


Finally, I find it interesting to think about how eating competitively could impact your relationship with food. We already know that it very likely destroys your connection with normal hunger/fullness cues, but there are no studies on the long-term effects of eating this way. Some competitors have confessed to using laxatives or other purging methods during training or after a competition. And one could easily argue that the sport of competitive eating is just competitive binge eating, which is an eating disorder behaviour and a very serious condition.


B:That’s literally what I’ve been thinking. I’d be interested to know how many of these competitors start with or develop disordered eating patterns. Because you could really consider the preparation required for the competitions and the competitions themselves to enforce that behaviour.


Absolutely, and in a way, reward it. While some competitors do seem to maintain a healthy lifestyle while training, it also makes me wonder what happens when they stop competing as they age? Surely it’s difficult if not impossible for them to rebuild a normal relationship with food? I was thinking about how difficult it can be for any competitive athlete to transition from being an athlete to not being an athlete, and that is usually accompanied with changes in body composition and an adjustment period with regards to food and appetite. I imagine how much more difficult that transition would be if eatingwasyour sport. 


B:And if your hunger and fullness cues are out of whack. I wonder if you ever fully get those back and how long it takes?


Yeah, I wonder that too. Because it is absolutely possible to recover from binge eating and reconnect with your hunger cues, but this is a different level of high volume eating. And I don’t want to paint the picture that all competitors have a challenging relationship with food, because I don’t actually know that. I’m sure there are people that have found a way to compete without psychological stress. I read one account of a 48 year old woman named Juliet Lee, a small-business owner and mother of two, who shared that the eating competitions were cathartic for her and has freed her from her body image issues. Growing up, Lee was always told that she needed to curb her appetite to appear more ladylike, which led to longstanding body image issues. She says that competing in a sport where a big appetite is an advantage, makes her feel empowered and proud of herself. So that’s another side of the story, but I do think there are better coping mechanisms out there with less risks. 


B:ok well that’s cool. Whatever does it for ya.


We don’t recommend participating in eating competitions for a variety of reasons, and if you do feel drawn to competing, it might be a good idea to really reflect onwhyyou’re drawn to competitive eating. 


That’s it. The end…


B:Really interesting story! Great job, Sarah. I really thought someone was going to get murdered though. (S: Fortunately, no murder.)

A few years ago I watched this episode of CSI where a man died after an eating competition that sounded extremely similar to the hot dog competition and I’m pretty sure he was being extorted into them by his brother-in-law or something. And I barely ever remember watching anything on TV but that story really stuck with me. It was so intense. But in the story the man who died lived with Prader (Praw-der)-Willi Syndrome which impacted his hunger cues, allowing him to eat beyond what fullness would be for most.


S: Okay I really want to find that episode! That’s so interesting, and I wonder if the Great Eating of Kent was actually just living with Prader-Willi Syndrome. That would explain a lot! 




Okay bye!!