By Eva Aldrin Yashko
Imagine eating 255 Peeps in five minutes. That’s what Matt Stonie accomplished on April 8th on National Peeps Day, in Spring Harbor Maryland, shattering his previous world record. Along with eleven other competitors, Stonie competed in The National Harbor World Peeps Eating Championship. First prize: 3,500 dollars in cash, and a silver trophy overflowing with purple peeps. However that prize comes with a heavy price.
The “sport” of competitive eating is overseen by Major Eating League, and includes every food from Bacon to 7-eleven Sports Slurpees. The goal of each competition is too eat as much as possible within a time allotment that varies from thirty minutes to nine seconds. Competitors are given beverages to help put the food down. According to Time Magazine, the Major Eating League was founded in the 1990’s by two brothers, George and Richard Shea, who were publicists from Nathan’s hot dog company. Since 1916, Nathan’s has held hot dog eating contests in order to increase it’s publicity. When restaurants followed suit and started a trend, the Sheas started the Major Eating League to manage and supervise the competitions. Now many of the more high-stakes competitions are covered by ESPN, and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest draws as many as 35,000 people to Coney Island each year.
For Matt Stonie, it all began with lobster rolls. “It all started off when I was just going to college: I was 19-years-old and there was a lobster roll eating contest five minutes away from my house. It was 1,000 bucks if you won the contest, and even if you didn’t win, you got free lobster rolls. So I signed up, and on my first go I beat the guy who was expected to win by half a lobster roll,” he told GQ during an interview in 2015. At the time of the interview, Stonie had just beaten reigning hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut during the 2015 Nathan’s hot dog competition. The upset victory propelled him to fame within the world of competitive eating. He now has a popular YouTube Channel, holds 15 competitive eating world records, and ranks #2 among professional eaters.
“…it’s not about enjoying myself. It’s a competition. It’s about tolerance and knowing what to expect.”
Stonie insists that training for an eating competition is the same as for most sports: Practice is key. “For me, because I’m training for the poutine contest next month, I’ll start making and eating poutine a week or two beforehand. It’s really hard to make at home because cheese curds are impossible to find here, but I always do the best I can to mimic the food I’ll be eating at a contest, getting used to the flavour and the texture. People say I shouldn’t eat the same food ahead of time because I’ll get sick of it but it’s not about enjoying myself. It’s a competition. It’s about tolerance and knowing what to expect,” he told TorontoLife.
Competitive eaters are able to hold so much in their stomachs by eating a lot, even when they aren’t competing. According to Reader’s Digest, Matt Stonie ate around 60 hot dogs three times a week for six weeks, in order to train for the 2015 Nathan’s Famous HotDog Contest. Occasionally he would finish off the meal by swigging almost a gallon of water. Most competitive eaters drink water to expand their stomach capacities, and to help food go down. However intense water consumption can be dangerous. In fact, there are many aspects of competitive eating that are cause for concern.
Drinking water at training sessions and slurping it down to increase food intake during competitions can result in water intoxication. The American Council On Health and Science puts it this way: Water intoxication, or poisoning, occurs when too much water is consumed in a very short period, which prompts sodium levels in blood to drop precipitously. This can lead to brain swelling, stroke, coma and sometimes even death.
There are also psychiatric problems, as Kim Dennis, a board certified psychiatrist and eating disorder expert from Chicago, explained in an article by USA Today. “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…Somebody eating 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes is self-abuse to some extent.”
“You wake up the next day, and you’re bloated. It’s not fun. It’s work.”
The physical side effects, both immediate and future, are concerning as well. A study on competitive eating in American Journal of Roentgenology in 2007 stated, “We speculate that professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting and even the need for a gastrectomy. Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior.” On his training sessions and the large amount of both food and water he has to ingest, Stonie put it bluntly: “You wake up the next day, and you’re bloated. It’s not fun. It’s work.”
So why? Why would a person willingly eat to the point of nausea? The monetary rewards definitely help. According to USA Today, Stonie raked in around $100,000 in 2014. Joey Chestnut, who is considered the #1 competitive eater in America, made $230,000. And safety standards have been put in place. The Major Eating League requires that every event have an emergency medical technician present at all times. The Shea brothers discourage training for competitions, “It’s ridiculous, You don’t need to do it. There’s no arms race to 100 (hot dogs).”
Stonie shrugs off the health risks in an interview with the UK’s Telegraph. “Competitive eating isn’t about being the healthiest you can be, but neither is football, basketball or tennis. It’s about training for the competition, and loving the sport. And whilst all sports have their physical demands, being a professional means understanding those dangers and taking all preventive measures to minimize any damage. And, to date, I am yet to experience any adverse side-effects from my eating.” However, he warns in a USA Today article, competitive eating does have risks. “A lot of us don’t know what we’re doing, we’re just experimenting. Sometimes people go a little gung-ho, a little overboard, and hurt themselves.”