How Do Eating Competitions Work?

Sports of any kind are a demanding endeavor that involve hours of preparation, practice, endurance and focus. The gruelling toll athletics can take on a participant’s body and psyche cannot be overstated. While it might seem sophomoric and trite, competitive eating is an athletic event that demands just as much time, effort, oversight and rules as soccer, hockey, bowling or any other sport.

When the International Federation of Competitive Eating was founded in 1997 by brothers George and Richard Shea, the goal of the organization was to be a central resource for all things related to competitive eating. Since then, it has become the international governing body for competitive eating, supervising and regulating events and professionals.

The top priority is, of course, safety, stating on the International Federation of Competitive Eating website, “all sanctioned competitive eating matches take place in a controlled environment with proper safety measures in place.” For safety reasons, practicing in one’s home or participating in competitive eating before the age of 18 is not recommended.

While IFOCE discourages training, many professionals still undergo rigorous training programs to increase stomach elasticity, jaw strength and eating speed. Trencherman extraordinaire Joey Chestnut will conduct personal time tests, eating Nathan’s hot dogs for months prior the annual 4th of July event.

Most competitive eating competitions are now timed, with limits ranging from eight to 15 minutes. Challenges are presided over by a master of ceremonies who also serves as commentator for the event. Normally there is a panel of judges to weigh in on any possible infractions, close calls and so on.

There are a variety of different tactics competitors will use during any given challenge. Shoveling in bites of food prior to the clock striking zero is called “chipmunking” and is allowed in some competitions but often with a time limit enforced for when the food must be swallowed entirely. Also, when a food is doughy or comes in a bun (like a hot dog), “dunking” is allowed but food is only allowed to be submersed in liquid for a preset amount of time to avoid dissolving anything. Spreading your food around on the table and floor of the eating area won’t help you as excess debris can result in a loss of points for any eater. Also, if at any time during the competition, a challenger vomits, that person is disqualified.

For some of IFOCE-sanctioned professional competitive eating challenges, qualifying matches are held. Nathan’s Hot Dogs actually does a tour of qualifying matches to bring in the best hot dog eaters the nation has to offer.

It’s a tough job that not everyone can stomach.

Check out interviews with competitive eaters.

Alli Sands is a freelance writer. Her work can be found on


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