It's that time of year again -- the 95th Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. No matter how many times it comes around, it's difficult to get over the fact that this "sport" draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and over a million viewers at home. It is ten minutes of the world's twenty "best" competitive eaters stuffing as many hot dogs into their mouths as possible. As a mindful eating advocate, I can't help but express some concern about this event every year.
The contest has been likened to the Super Bowl of competitive eating contests. It's a big deal for the International Confederation of Competitive Eating (Major League Eating) which advertises competitive eating contests around the world. The Nathan's Hot Dog event kicks off a number of local contests this summer including everything from competitively eating hamburgers, brownies, ribs, to oysters and clams as quickly as humanly possible.
Thankfully, despite repeated attempts to get competitive eating contests into the Olympics it hasn't been accepted. Can you imagine the impact? At a time when we are trying to make it "uncool" to eat unhealthy, what message would this send? One of the best strategies for helping people change an unhealthy behavior is to make it less attractive. Consider how views of smoking have changed. Smoking isn't as cool as it used to be as reflected in the laws about where you can and can't smoke. Rarely do you see the good guy smoking in movies.
If these contests were in the Olympics, would this lead to competitive eating teams in schools? Would kids grow up aspiring to be competitive eaters? Would it be "okay" to mindlessly overeat if it was for a trophy, money or simply the glory of it? Many competitive eaters seem to say that they started out being known for their big appetites. Instead of changing the habit, they embraced and ran with it. Also, notice the disparity in the male to female ratio of people who compete. How would you feel about a woman's competitive eating team versus a male team?
It's true that contests like these are just for "fun." In the grand scheme of things, they aren't going to make or break the issue. Obesity and binge eating are clearly complex problems that are caused by multiple different factors. But, could eating contests be tangentially related to some of the mindless eating happening in the world? Definitely.
Here is a recent example. Take the LeBron challenge from the Carnegie Deli in NYC. The deli challenged LeBron fans to eat an entire 5-pound Carnegie Deli sandwich named in honor of No. 23 to show support for him coming to NYC. Only one person has succeeded but over two hundred have tried.
Not to mention the TV show Man v. Food. The star of the show travels around the world doing crazy food challenges. He recently filmed an episode in Cleveland in which he devoured an insanely big grilled cheese sandwich. Does this make the coolness factor of overeating go up just a notch? Will other people try this grilled cheese sandwich the next time they are in Cleveland?
What we don't see is behind the scenes. Serious competitive eaters do some pretty dangerous things to train. Take these two men from Cleveland who will be participating in the Akron National Hamburger Festival hamburger eating contest in two weeks. One man stated in a Cleveland Plain Dealer article, "I'll drink a lot of water and eat two or three heads of lettuce in a sitting to stretch my stomach out." The other stated he likes to "pound a couple boxes of bran flakes to get his stomach ready for a major feedbag."
I guess fans of eating contests should take a hint from the Nathan's Hot Dog's Challenge's newest sponsor, Pepto Bismol. Overeating, competitive or not, can have some pretty major physical consequences.
So, this year, again, I'm a conscientious objector of the Nathan's Hot Dog event. You can be too.
Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness. She is author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful, and Mindful Eating 101 and a Huffington Post blogger. Her books have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, O, the Oprah Magazine, Natural Health and Self Magazine and on the Dr. Oz TV Show. Visit Albers online at www.eatingmindfully.com