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Competitive Eating: Is Excelling at This Good for Women? Good for Anyone?

Molly Schuyler with a 72 ounce steak dinner.Last week I saw a report of a competitive “achievement,” in which a small woman did what no one expected her to do.  Now, I’m usually pleased by this sort of thing. I like it when women, large or small, do things that defy “type.”

But this time I wasn’t so sure about the achievement. Molly Schuyler from Nebraska is a competitive eater. She weighs just 120 pounds.  What did she do?

She ate TWO 72 ounce steak dinners in less than 20 minutes at Amarillo’s Big Texan Steak Ranch. This happened in May, but it got another round of attention when it got recycled by Fox news in January.

My reservations don’t stem from my vegan convictions.  It’s nothing like that at all.

It’s just that in the realm of things that it’s a good thing for women to be good at, competitive eating doesn’t make my top ten.  For one thing, it’s kind of dangerous.

People get injured or even die when they undertake to eat competitively.  In this Slate article, “Dog Bites Man,” author Jason Fagone reports that Japanese competitive eater, Takeru Kobayashi, is suffering from an arthritic jaw. But that’s mild compared to the full range of possibilities:

The annals of gurgitation are dotted with strokes and blocked windpipes, of guts literally busted. Go as far back as you like. The novel The Golden Ass, written around A.D. 200, tells of an ancient food fighter almost choking to death on a piece of cheese. The native Tlingit peoples of Alaska used to hold raucous eating contests at their potlatch feasts; one such bacchanal came to a tragic end when a warrior ate a box full of dried hemlock bark and washed it down with water. According to a turn-of-the-century ethnography of the Tlingit, “This caused the hemlock bark to swell and his stomach to burst.”

As for more recent harms, you can’t top Mort Hurst’s Guinness World Record attempt in 1991. Hurst, a MoonPie-eating champ from North Carolina, suffered a stroke after eating 38 soft-boiled eggs in 29 seconds. He recovered and went on to compete again. Others weren’t so lucky. In 2002, a 14-year-old schoolkid in Japan raced his friends at bread-eating, choked, and died. In 2004, a Japanese housewife choked to death on a wheat-rice cake at a contest in Hyogo prefecture. And just this January, a 28-year-old woman in California died of water intoxication after drinking almost two gallons of water in a contest sponsored by a morning radio show. She was trying to win a Nintendo Wii.

Another article about competitive eating, “Eating to Win: 5 Things You Didn’t Know about Competitive Eating,” talks about the intense training regimes serious competitive eaters undertake to get “in shape” for their events:

The masticator muscles of the jaw are among the strongest muscles in the body. Bob Shoudt, who holds the world record for eating more food by weight or volume than any other competitor, says he chews gum constantly – up to 25 pieces at a time — to strengthen his masticators so he can grind up food more quickly. Shea said the jaws of top competitors can exert 280 pounds of force, about the same as a German shepherd.

Shoudt and other competitors push the limit of stomach distension by drinking copious amount of fluids. Even those who don’t train this way appear to have a super human ability to expand their stomachs. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology found that competitive eaters’ stomachs can grow four times greater than the average person’s to hold four liters’ worth of food and fluid.

Competitive eaters also learn techniques to speed up the eating process. For example, Shoudt says he hops up and down to accelerate the swallowing process with gravity, and he sometimes presses against his stomach to push food lower into the abdomen. Some eaters use a move called the Valsalva Maneuver, which involves pinching the nose and holding the breath. This closes off the airway and supposedly increases the squeezing movement of the esophagus known as peristalsis.

None of these are particularly healthy.  As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a big advocate of eating slowly and mindfully. That’s about the opposite of what happens at a competitive eating event.

That’s not to say they eat like that all the time. But one time is all you need to choke on a hot dog or suffer a stroke or a burst gut.

So in the scheme of things in which women of all sizes surprise us by doing things we don’t expect them to do, I’d rather see more small, strong power lifters and plus-sized endurance athletes than 120 pound competitive eaters. Yes, it pushes the body’s physical limits, as do most sports, and yes it requires focus and conditioning.

And probably for everything physically demanding that anyone might do, from running marathons to climbing mountains, there are those detractors who just can’t wrap their heads around why someone would do it.

But is it a worthwhile pursuit? Put it this way – I doubt we’ll be seeing it in the Olympics any time soon. And if the reward is simply that you get the meal for free, as was the case for Molly Schuyler (you have to pay up front to take the challenge), why not just forgo the 72 ounce steak dinners and keep your money in your pocket in the first place?

Here is Molly Schuyler breaking the record by eating two 72 ounce steak dinners in under 20 minutes:

And that’s not her only achievement. To see a list of Molly’s challenge history (and it’s not even an up-to-date list), check here.


6 thoughts on “Competitive Eating: Is Excelling at This Good for Women? Good for Anyone?

  1. Competitive eating is disgusting, regardless of the gender, size, or nationality of the participant. It’s a gluttonous waste of food that is a slap in the face to the billions around the world without enough to eat.

  2. I admire any one who finds a way to get paid to do what they love. Life isnt about who lives the longest. Its about achievement, friendships, experiences. I like this sport because it shows how in this one thing that we all do every day there are people who cross the line to become almost animal like in their ability to eat in a decidedly non-human manner.

  3. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    We are in the middle of a deep freeze here and I’m drawn to this past post to totally take my mind off of it. Here, I considered the case of competitive eating and whether it’s something we should be impressed with. I confess that I love the idea that this 120 pound woman can scarf down a 72 ounce steak and all the accompaniments in record-breaking time because it challenges stereotypes. It’s also fascinating (that’s the best word i can come up with) to watch her in action. But my thoughts about competitive eating haven’t really changed. Of the various things we can aim to be good at, shoving down as much food as we can in as little time as possible doesn’t seem like the most worthy of pursuits. And could even be dangerous and is almost certainly bad for one’s health. Nevertheless, here you are. Draw your own conclusion. And Go, Molly!

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