Who Wins in the Gluttony Race?

In America it’s not enough that each family can enjoy a plump Thanksgiving turkey. No, in the land of the American plenty, we can each inhale a whole turkey of our own, and in some cases, compete to see who can do it faster.

If you thought the annual 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest would be enough to make a theologian question his faith, the annual turkey-eating contest might make him lose faith in humanity itself.

Around Nov 22 or 23 each year, Foxwoods Resort and Casino hosts an annual Turkey-Eating Championship, awarding a total sum of $10,000 in cash prizes to gobblers who feast the fastest on an entire festive bird.

The championship prides itself with a nationalistic motto, saying: “Here in America, the only thing we love more than turkey on Thanksgiving is a winner.”

Last year’s inaugural event saw the Major League Eater, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, strip 9.35 pounds of meat from an entire turkey in just 10 minutes for the new world-record win.

“Seriously, what’s not to love?” the event administrators ask on the Major League Eating Contest’s site. “Win money, eat turkey, celebrate all that is good and decent and warm and wonderful about [our] great nation and earn the esteem of your peers while doing so?”

But there’s plenty not to love, such as the obvious health concerns wrought by the over-consumption that these events encourage.

Chestnut is now 31 years old and weighs 230 pounds. While he may not fit the obese physical stereotype of a man who eats for a living, this rapid intake of food still places his body in harm’s way.

According to Kim Dennis, a board-certified psychiatrist and eating disorder expert, over-eating can lead to gastric ruptures or plummeting sodium levels, which could in turn induce seizures.
In a USA Today article on the topic, Dennis also listed eating disorders as another high adverse result of this competitive mentality towards food.

“Putting all of the health risks aside, there are certainly some psychological or psychiatric risks with regards to development of an eating disorder for people who had any sort of genetic predisposition to have one,” said Dennis in the article. “Somebody eating 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes is self-abuse to some extent.”

Not much research has been done on the negative impacts of this gluttonous behavior, but a study in 2007 did conclude that the profession may lead to morbid obesity, gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and the need for a gastrectomy.

The study was carried by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania as an experiment for a National Geographic special. In an interview with TIME Magazine, they stated that they wanted to better understand the malleability of heavy eaters’ stomachs.

They compared two men: one professional food consumer and the other a man with a “healthy” appetite.

In 12 minutes, the men ate as many hot dogs as they could. The researchers found that the stomach of the professional eater was “massively distended…occupying most [of] the upper abdomen.” Additionally, there were few or no gastric peristalses, the contractions made by the stomach to properly break down food.

Marc Levine, an author of the study and a gastrointestinal radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told TIME Magazine that the tremendous level of food ingested was biologically astonishing.

“This was not some inherent skill [the competitive eater] had since he was a child,” said Levine.
“For many months, he would practice by eating larger and larger volumes of food….He was able to overcome the satiety reflex, and once he did that, the stomach overcame the peristalsis activity so it was able to accept an unlimited amount of food.”

This reflex of the organ is what also signals the brain that the organ is full, as well as signaling if the body needs to vomit, according to Levine.

The University of Pennsylvania study supports many doctors’ claims that the behavior could lead to eating disorders as well as gastric issues. But many competitors are willing to overlook these associated risks for the sizable monetary compensation.

Matt “The Megatoad” Stonie, who won the 2015 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest by eating 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes, has collected about $112,325 since 2009. Chesnut has won close to a half million dollars since competing in 2005.

The ultimate winner, though, may be the mega-corporations who back the entire enterprise. Nathan’s annual contest sold over 435 million Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs last year.

Hot dog sales skyrocketed from 250 million to 1 billion between 2003 and 2014. The stock also grew from $6 to $53 a share in just 10 years, not surprisingly after ESPN began to broadcast the contest.

Regardless of the likely harms induced from years of competitive eating, the push for extremes for the sake of entertainment has been an American crucible that continues to persist.

And if it means soaring sales for all the working corporate parts, and basking in the ultimate feasting of true Thanksgiving joy — these eating competitions may actually be an accurate symbol to America’s need for efficiency, speed, and all things gluttonous.

Photo courtesy of Michael.