What is competitive eating? Let me answer that with another question. What do you think it is, idiot? Yes, competitive eating is exactly what you think it is, cramming various food items into your face (and stomach) over a particular period of time. Whoever eats the most, wins the toast (if it’s a toast eating contest). But how do munching mavericks like Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and Sonya Thomas achieve these feats? Watch and learn (and then eat).
You might think it’s just some crazed restaurant owner who tries to drum up business by having various local lunatics chow down on an unfeasibly large amount of carbs, but that simply isn’t the case. There’s not one but two official food eating federations: the International Federation of Competitive Eaters (IFOCE) and the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters (AICE).
Both groups oversee and invigilate feats of food eating all over the world. But there’s a major rule differential between the two. With AICE food has to be eaten as presented with no mashing, blending or dunking. With IFOCE anything goes, squish it, poke it, rub it, they don’t care as long as it gets in your tummy.
Now there are eating events revolving around a myriad of foodstuffs, including pizza, oysters, chicken wings, Twinkies, doughnuts, butter and cow brains. But the grandaddy of them all, the World Cup of stuffing your face, has to be the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition at Coney Island which attracts thousands of spectators and is televised globally.
There have been many different philosophical approaches to competitive eating. Back in the old days, it was assumed that you had to be a great big fat person in order to chow down skip-fulls of treats. But a variety of things need to be in place to masticate successfully.
Now it is widely thought that a layer of tummy fat actually restricts the amount by which your stomach can expand. The champion eaters these days tend to be fairly skinny, muscular guys who train solidly to gain the upper hand (and gullet). But mainly you have to be a freak of nature.
You can stretch your stomach by drinking massive amounts of liquids before a competition and trick your body into believing you’re not completely full. You need to overcome your gag reflex, so you don’t reject the food as it enters your throat and you need jaws of steel.
To adequately chew the food effectively enough, your jaw muscles need to be much stronger than a normal person’s. Some competitors train by chewing huge amounts of gum, often 25 pieces at a time, constantly. And just like any athlete who pushes their body to the limit, you have to restrict the number of events you take part in. During an event you can be hurling tens of thousands of calories into your body all at once, so you can’t indulge every weekend.
But the main area that needs to be honed is the brain. Only through sheer willpower can you overcome the sensation of being crammed with grub and still stick just one morsel into your gullet.
Like many sports, the world of competitive eating is cluttered with bespoke phrases and names denoting various techniques. Some favour the ‘Solomon’ where food is split in two and shoved sideways into the mouth hole. Others like the ‘Valsalva’ during which your breath is held and your nose is pinched to work the oesophagus harder.
And if you spot a champion chower hopping up and down while competing, this isn’t all that water training having the inevitable effect, there is a school of thought which believes that bouncing forces the food down more quickly using the magic of gravity.
But all true champs (unless adhering to strict AICE rules) use the almighty power of water to aid their gluttony. Dunking the food softens it, making it easier to swallow, as well as lubricating it, allowing it to slip down your pipe a lot easier. Towards the end of a contest you may see some ‘chipmunking’ taking place. This is when huge amounts of food are crammed into the cheeks before the final whistle blows.
As well as gorging, dunking, chipmunking and Solomoning, those taking part must also keep an eye on cleanliness. If there’s too much gastronomic debris on the surface in front of them, they can be disqualified.
If you’ve watched any of the Jackass films and seen their attempts at competitive munching, you’d think throwing up was a vital part of the whole process. But vomiting before, during or immediately after a bout will lead to immediate disqualification. (In official terms this is known as a ‘reversal’).
Though you will undoubtedly have to get all of that material out of your body, just don’t do it in front of any judges or spectators. Other than that, there’s little that can prepare you for that sudden influx of grub. An antacid or stomach calming medication prior to the event may help reduce heartburn or indigestion, but that will also take up valuable space in your stomach.
Basically, don’t make any major plans for a few days after a bout. Probably best to avoid trampolines, bouncy castles and bungee jumps – who knows what will happen.
Most medical experts, when asked about competitive eating, will have a singular opinion: don’t do it. There are a vast amount of reasons to avoid punishing your body in that way and there have been a number of fatalities.
Firstly, drinking copious amounts of water (during the training stage) can wash all the electrolytes out of your body and bring about a condition called water intoxication. Then there are the effects on your stomach, with the lining becoming distended and unable to properly recover, leading to digestive trouble and possible problems such as ulcers.
Cramming large amounts of stuff into your throat is also a potential choking hazard, especially if you try to shut off your breathing as a swallowing technique. And, of course, if you don’t vigorously exercise before and after an event, all that grub can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, clogged arteries and diabetes. So, in short, if you want to be a champion competitive eater: don’t.