They train hard, they develop incredible techniques to defeat their competitors and they subject their bodies to major abuse.
Competitive eaters have moved from freakshows at carnivals to the mainstream with thousands of competitions happening everywhere from D.C. to Singapore. The truly hardcore star on the show Man v. Food and vie for spots on the Major League Eating website's Eater Rankings page.
But in Taiwan, some are trying to bring an end to gluttony as a sport.
According to AFP, Control Yuan, a top government watchdog, has said eating contests put a strain on medical resources and put contestants at risk for serious health problems. The country has a national insurance plan and the watchdog has asked health authorities not to reimburse medical bills submitted by competitive eaters for competitive eating-related treatments and care.
The onus should be on organizers of the events, it says.
The trend has taken off in the last few years in Taiwan, but took a bad turn in 2008 when a competitor in a steamed bun-eating contest choked to death. Slate Magazine rounds up other recent deaths: a teen in Japan choked during a bread-eating contest, a Japanese woman choked in a wheat-rice cake contest and a California woman died from water intoxication as part of a radio contest.
But it's not just rookies that are at risk of injury or death in speed eating. Even the pros can have long-term health problems, especially if they regularly compete and put their digestive systems through such stress.
The most famous competitive eater, pint-sized Japanese national Takeru Kobayashi, said he developed arthritis in his jaw in 2007, which was understood to be a "workplace injury."
Sonya Thomas a.k.a. The Black Widow, the 98-pound Korean-American who dominates the women's eating circuit, says when she hits a wall and thinks she's going to vomit, she uses mental techniques to overcome the feeling.
We're guessing she cultivated this technique during shifts at Burger King, where she says she usually downs "a grilled chicken sandwich, two large nice and hot fries, 16 pieces of chicken tenders, and about three large Diet Cokes" every time she works.
But in a study on competitive eating published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, researchers concluded that even competitors like her could face long-term health issues.
They wrote that the best speed eaters successfully "expand the stomach to form an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food" but, along the way, may eventually develop "obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy." They termed competitive eating as self-destructive behaviour.
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