The depravity of Major League Eating.

Science, technology, and life.
July 8 2010 7:43 AM

Deep Throat

The depravity of Major League Eating.

(Continued from Page 1)

In fact, U.S. political leaders seem divided. While the U.S. immigration service gave Kobayashi his special visa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all but endorsed Kobayashi's chief rival at last week's "weighing-in ceremony" for the hot-dog contest. Standing beside MLE star Joey Chestnut, Bloomberg hailed the contest as "the World Cup of eating up," dismissed Kobayashi as a coward for not participating, and saluted Chestnut for "eating an amazing 68 dogs … in just 10 minutes."

This is the same Mayor Bloomberg who banned trans fats in New York restaurants and is now pressuring food companies, under the threat of legislation, to reduce their salt use. But 68 hot dogs? That's a feat worth celebrating. Perhaps the mayor is unaware that each Nathan's hot dog has 692 milligrams of sodium and 18.2 grams of fat, including 6.9 grams of saturated fat and half a gram of trans fat. This means that in the first 30 seconds of the hot-dog contest, Chestnut exceeded the U.S. government's prescribed "tolerable" daily intake of sodium, and within 45 seconds, he exceeded the limit of his recommended daily intake of fat. By the end of the 10 minutes, he had eaten 10 to 17 times his recommended fat intake (including 33 grams of trans fats) and 20 times his "tolerable" sodium intake. The mayor should have handed him a cigar—it would have done less damage.

Bloomberg isn't alone in glorifying eating contests. Scan the Congressional Record, and you'll find tributes from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V.; Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. These politicians, like countless others, stand foursquare against pornography, except when it involves deep-throating 68 wieners on ESPN.

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If you've never seen the Nathan's contest, you can get your fill of it by watching ESPN's excerpt, a full-length video, or MLE's highlights from last year's show. It's an orgy of brown drool, flying debris, and masticated mush. You'll see fists and fingers pushing food down throats. You'll see contestants twisting their necks and shaking their bellies to make the food go down. "They work on their gag reflex," one ESPN announcer explains. Another praises a contestant: "He was blessed upon birth with an overactive gall bladder and not four but six first molars. He's a great eater." In case the frontal images aren't graphic enough, ESPN delivers close-ups through its "chew-view cam," along with a running "dogs per minute" stat.

Chestnut, who has won the contest for the past four years, explains his techniques to Esquire: "I drink massive amounts of water to make sure the muscles around my stomach are still loose and stretched. You can fool your body into accepting more—I'm jumping up and down to control my stomach and push the food through faster. It wants to settle in your stomach, but I'm getting the food to settle farther and farther down." He tells ESPN, "I've practiced ignoring the feelings of hunger and being full for so long, I don't even feel them anymore." Ten years ago, the record at the Nathan's contest was 25 hot dogs. Now it's 68, and Chestnut claims to have forced down 72 in a practice session.

The physical risks of this lifestyle are obvious. Three years ago in Slate, Jason Fagone, the author of Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, recounted strokes, jaw injuries, choking deaths, fatal water intoxications, and other eating-contest tragedies. "Thanks to increasing prize money and media exposure, there's incentive now for competitive eaters to challenge the physical limits of the body," Fagone observed. They're "stretching their stomachs with huge volumes of chugged liquid," inducing digestive paralysis and risking "gastric rupture." A study published that year cautioned that "professional speed eaterseventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis,intractable nausea and vomiting." Even MLE warns prospective contestants of the sport's "inherent dangers and risks."

But the contestants keep pouring in. Thanks to MLE, ESPN, and a growing stable of corporate sponsors, the fame and money become more attractive each year. One contestant has chugged 48 ounces of beer in less than six seconds. Another has wolfed down a 72-ounce steak in less than seven minutes. People weighing less than 100 pounds are eating one-eighth of their body weight in eight minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, more than a dozen elite competitors touted by MLE and All Pro Eating weigh over 300 pounds. One of them, 420-pound Eric "Badlands" Booker, crushed Slate's Emily Yoffe in a matzo-ball eating contest five years ago. Booker also makes rap CDs about competitive eating. You can buy them, of course, through the MLE Web site.

Fifty years from now, when historians are looking for a moment that captures the depravity of our age—the gluttony, the self-destruction, the craving for worthless fame—it won't be bathhouses, Big Love, or AdultFriendFinder. It'll be Joey Chestnut stuffing that 68th hot dog down his unresisting gullet, live on ESPN. Or, worse, it'll be the guy who broke his record.

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