Watching eating contests are a little like witnessing a train wreck. We can hardly tear our eyes away from the horrific image of contestants stuffing 50 hot dogs in their face in 12 minutes. Even my husband, a former chicken wing eating champion (prior to our marriage!), sat mesmerized by the ESPN taping of Nathan’s hot dog eating competition. He wasn’t alone. Over 60,000 people downloaded it from Youtube.com.
The first time I witnessed a pie eating contest I was twelve years old. It was at an Ohio county fair. Little did I know that it would change the course of my life. My second cousin, infamous for his voracious appetite, was a contestant. I hid my face as his mouth plunged into the mounds of cream. Pie filling blotted every inch of his face and matted his hair. I remember thinking that this wasn’t just gross it was a recipe for disaster. My cousin had an extended family of well meaning food pushers who ate at the drop of a hat. Giving him a prize for mindlessly overeating wasn’t going to help his weight which was already topping the charts at age twelve. To this day, he struggles with eating and obesity related health issues. Witnessing this event planted a seed in my head. I had to do something to stop this madness.
Twenty some years later, I became a crusader against mindless eating and helping people manage their weight—the polar opposite of these eating contests. I am a psychologist who treats men and women with eating disorders—anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, mindless eating, and dieting. Before the age of thirty, I wrote two books entitled Eating Mindfully and Mindfully Eating 101. My goal was to show people how our world gives us very mixed messages and confusing role models for how to eat. Eating contests are a prime example. My book was translated into Japanese. Clearly, the epidemic is spreading.
We are slightly hypocritical in the way we chastise the media. Eating disorder advocates are incensed over the waif like, hauntingly emaciated models airbrushed into magazines. They are rightly concerned about the dangerous behaviors men and women engage in to emulate these stick figures. But, we don’t hear an outcry over an equally disturbing event like eating contests. Serious competitors often teach their bodies how to ignore the “full” feeling. When you ignore your body screaming stop, you run the risk of rupturing your esophagus or stomach. Even worse, it could cause death.
It’s interesting that a behavior like mindless overeating, which most people work years to overcome and contributes to one of the largest health concerns in America, is embraced, glorified and rewarded in these contests.
We have to wonder what kind of example competitive eating contests set. How do they contribute to the millions of people who struggle with binge eating disorder and mindless eating all over the world? Although not all eating contests are on ESPN or get national sponsors, they make their way into county fairs and cafeterias—where kids bet each other to see who can eat the most French fries.
I believe that learning to manage your eating habits is one of the most important life skills you can have. It’s not easy. We have to fight each day to do it well in such a warped eating world that televises and rewards people stuffing food into their faces as fast as possible.
So, the next time you find yourself unable to tear your eyes away from a competitive eating contest, consider whether you want to support this dangerous sport that glorifies mindless overeating eating. Instead, we should be cheering on and televising people who are truly good examples of mindful eaters—a real accomplishment in this mindless eating world.
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