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How Competitive Eating Works

Attending a Competitive Eating Event

You might be wondering, "What is it like to actually attend one of these events?" A chicken wing eating contest at the fourth annual National Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York provided an opportunity to find out.

IFOCE chairman George Shea
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE

A large crowd had gathered around the stage when IFOCE chairman and MC George Shea started his introductions. Shea is part carnival barker, part preacher and part stand-up comedian as he sings the praises of the world's best gurgitators to the accompaniment of blaring rock music. It's important to understand that Shea and the eaters don't really take themselves too seriously, but part of the humor that underlines the whole event is that they pretend to take themselves really seriously. Shea called one competitor, "Jammin" Joe LaRue, "The Missing Link..not between man and ape, but between man...and God!" Sonya Thomas received a lengthy introduction that referred to her as "the essence of beauty...the shadow beneath the lotus." She then emerged from the crowd wielding a Chicken Sceptre while "Hell's Bells" by AC/DC blasted through the sound system.

Sonya Thomas
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
Sonya Thomas in action

The crowd and the press were both very excited about the event. People were wearing t-shirts featuring their favorite eaters, and some eaters received deafening ovations from the spectators. Photographers crawled all over the area where the eaters were positioned, so much so that it was difficult to actually see any of the contest. When Sonya Thomas arrived from an unexpected direction, photographers practically stampeded to try and get a good photo. Once she started eating, she was ringed by cameras, some of them just inches from her wing-sauce covered face.

Ultimately, the real entertainment value of one of these events comes from Shea, not the contest itself. Once the eating begins, there's not much to look at. It's actually kind of gross. But Shea stalks the stage, goading the eaters into ever greater feats of intestinal fortutide, cheering them on, and discussing common problems such as "the eight-minute wall" and "the meat sweats." His hyperbole is so over the top, you can't help but laugh.

Badlands Booker
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
Badlands Booker in action

For the record, Eric "Badlands" Booker won this event, upsetting Thomas, who finished second. Booker put away 137 wings (measured by weight) to Thomas' 127.

It's not all cookies, cakes, ice cream, hot dogs and glory. Let's look at the opposition to competitive eating.

Pontential Problems
Can competitive eating be harmful? Let's take a look at some numbers. At the extreme end of the spectrum, Kobayashi eats around 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Estimating 150 calories per dog and 100 calories per bun, Kobayashi consumes 12,500 calories in one sitting. As a point of reference, the USDA recommended caloric intake for an adult male is about 2,300 calories.

Competitors who don't reach Kobayashi's level still routinely down 18 to 25 dogs in one contest, which is more than 4,000 calories. It's easy to see that competitive eating is not the healthiest thing to do. That's not to mention the risk of choking or damaging the stomach by filling it beyond its natural "full" point. Some competitors do not digest what they eat at a contest -- they purge the contents of their stomachs via a "Roman incident." This isn't healthy either -- stomach acids from frequent vomiting can damage the esophagus and the enamel on teeth.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 11 million Americans suffer from bulimia or anorexia, while 25 million more suffer from bouts of binge eating [ref]. By glorifying the extreme eating necessary to compete in eating contests, competitive eating could be contributing to these problems. The training and competing patterns of competitive eaters could also be considered signs of an actual eating disorder.

For more information on competitive eating and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

  • Bird, Patrick J., PhD. "You can drink too much water."
    University of Florida College of Health and Human
  • "Bizarre sports records." Kidzworld Sports Media.
  • Caple, Jim. "Competitive eating a man-eat-dog world."
    Page 2, ESPN Online.
  • Conti, Crazy Legs. "Stuff your face." Topic Magazine.
  • "Cool Hand Luke."
  • "Hot dog eating contest champion Takeru Kobayashi."
    Kidzworld Sports Media.
  • International Federation of Competitive Eating.
  • Neary, Lynn. "Interview with George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE."
    Talk of the Nation. NPR Online, July 4, 2005.
  • Rovell, Darren. "Accusations hurled at hot dog contest."
    Page 2, ESPN Online.
  • Simon. "Sonya Thomas spills her guts."
  • Sklar, Randy and Jason. "Champions of Cheese: Competitive Eating."
    Day to Day. NPR Online, February 18,