Don’t Puke: The Psychology of Competitive Eating

For anyone that has taken the time to watch a competitive eating challenge either on television or in-person, the idea of doing that ourselves has likely pass through our brain waves. Maybe you feel as if you could completely dominate a pizza-eating competition. Or maybe corn on the cob, or pie, or any number of other food items.

But could you really? Would you really be able to do what those legends of the competitive eating circuit have spent years training and preparing their bodies for?

More than Meets the Eye

Competitive eating isn’t just about being a rather large man or woman who can devour an incredible amount of food in a small amount of time. If you’ve tuned in and watch Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, you have seen Joey Chestnut. Although Chestnut looks like any normal person walking the streets, he’s ranked as the No. 1 competitive eater in the world, standing 6-1 and weighing anywhere around 230 pounds. There is also Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese sensation who is just 5-8 and 128 pounds.

Both of those two have picked up countless titles as the competitive eating tour has taken off over the years, growing from regional pie-eating contests to events televised live on the Fourth of July on ESPN.

Dating back to the early 1900s and county fairs around the world, competitive eating has grown to the mainstream. Depending on the region you live you, maybe you’ve watched a competitive pie-eating contest, or sweet corn bonanza with your friends and neighbors. Pizza, pancakes, chicken wings, ribs, and, of course, hot dogs have also been featured.

Figuring out the winner is fairly simple, as the person who has kept the most food down in the previously set amount of time will get their hand raised. Of course, it is very important that they keep the food down, as vomiting results in disqualification.

Nathan’s Fourth of July event started in the 1970s but didn’t take off until 2001 when Kobayashi arrived and smashed the hot dog eating record of 25.5 by devouring 50 on Staten Island. With Kobayshi and Chestnut feuding over the title, ESPN caught wind and started televising the event live.

This past year, Chestnut claimed the title by finishing off 72 hot dogs and buns on July 4th. He holds several other eating world records along with Kobayashi, including meatballs, Twinkies, hamburgers, and pizza.

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You think you have a big stomach

When you see someone like Kobayashi smash two dozen hot dogs in a small amount of time, the first thought that comes to mind is “Where did he put all of that?” That is where training comes into play for those in the competitive eating world.

Competitors spend time days – and sometimes even weeks – before the competition starts expanding their stomachs. This can be by ingesting only water in large amounts over a short period of time, which allows for the stomach muscles to expand and contract back to normal.

Others have mixed water with low-calorie foods such as vegetables or salads, which changes the mass size of the stomach inside the human body. Also, having a powerful jaw allows for competitive eaters to chew the foods they are consuming up quickly and into small pieces. This can be achieved by rapidly chewing large amounts of gum.

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Practice your breathing

It might sound basic and obvious, but if you are ingesting a large amount of food quickly, making sure you are breathing properly is a key. Many who compete on the competitive eating circuit are runners or cyclists, which keeps them in proper shape and healthy. It also works with their breathing techniques, which allows them to devour more food promptly.

As competitive eater Nela Zisser told The Guardian, “You can fit a lot more in as you don’t have all the fat around your organs or your stomach” by staying and being in good, physical shape. Zisser is a five-time winner of the Tour De Donut, which sees people bike 36 miles, making a stop at a doughnut shop a third and two-thirds of the way through.

Staying in good shape with your cardio will also play an important role in the mental aspect of competitive eating. This keeps you focused on the end result and finishing the competition no matter the challenges.

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