On July 4th, the nation’s greatest competitive eaters gathered at Coney Island, New York, to participate in the annual Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, the Super Bowl of “how many can you eat in 10 minutes” contests that have been the cornerstone of county fairs for the better part of a century. The Nathan’s Famous event supposedly got started back in 1914 when a quartet of immigrants decided to see who among them was the most patriotic by eating the most hot dogs. It has since become a spectacle that draws thousands of fans, international media coverage and even a live broadcast on ESPN. The event is sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating and has strict qualifying standards. The winner gets $20,000, which seems like a lot until you figure that probably just covers one’s training costs.
This year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a construction engineer from California, won the mustard-colored belt for a fourth consecutive year, eating 54 hot dogs (buns included) in 10 minutes. That seems incredible until you realize that last year, he consumed a whopping 68 dogs. That’s 6.8 a minute. Most people couldn’t digest that many in a day. Honestly, just thinking about it makes me want to hurl.
It seems fitting that in today’s America such a severe bout of overeating is considered a sport. The average hot dog is 242 calories; a Nathan’s Famous is 309. When Chestnut won in 2009, he took in 21,012 calories–enough to feed a family of four for close to three days. He probably had enough sodium in him to give the guy standing next to him high blood pressure, and I’m guessing his saturated fat intake began to make light bend around his body.
This all seems funny until you consider that collectively, Americans are roughly one billion pounds overweight. The cost of obesity-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has doubled over the last decade, to about $147 billion a year. If you don’t believe me, go to the CDC’s website, where you will find an animated stat graph that shows how obesity levels in this country have exploded since 1985. The spread of intensity looks like a bad flu outbreak. Only it’s something we are doing to ourselves, one bite at a time.
Obviously, the government isn’t really interested in doing anything about this or else the USDA wouldn’t be infested with executives from the food industry. When the people who are advising the country on nutrition are also the ones putting high-fructose corn syrup into everything we eat, you know we’re on our own. But what boggles me the most is that the life & health industry doesn’t have more to say about all of this. For an industry that purports to feel the pain of a life insurance claimant’s family, or takes pride in delivering healthcare solutions to the public, it is strangely quiet on the subject of obesity and nutrition. It doesn’t take a genius to see that obesity and its related illnesses are probably the greatest underwriting and claims challenge this industry has faced in living memory. But the industry’s lack of public awareness and activism on this suggests a certain level of apathy. Personally, I’d like to think that life & health executives are all physically fit. After all, if they can’t be bothered to take good care of themselves, how can they be expected to take care of anybody else?
In the meantime, people absolutely have to rethink their relationship with food. A good first step would be to stop treating things like the Nathan’s Famous event as a sport and see it for what it really is: a symptom.