DES MOINES, Iowa — Planning to gorge yourself this Thanksgiving? Don't flatter yourself, amateur.
As Americans stuff themselves with turkey on Thursday, professional eaters will take center stage in a nationally televised competition, gobbling 20-pound birds in eight minutes.
While some shudder at the sight of contestants racing to devour food at a time when a third of Americans are obese, competitors just shrug.
"Doing it once in a while isn't bad for you, when you do it responsibly," champion eater Tim Janus said.
Others have had their fill of such events.
This fall, the University of Iowa canceled its annual corn-eating contest, held the week of the Iowa-Iowa State football game. Many saw the contest as a fun nod to the state's hallmark crop, but Phillip Jones, Iowa's vice president of student services, viewed it as an act of gluttony.
"It was something I thought was reasonable based on the data and stories I've seen about obesity and the proportion of people who are overweight," Jones said. "I don't know ... if it is dangerous, but it was a symbolic gesture to get people to address changes in our lifestyle."
Last year, organizers of the World Pie Eating Championship in Wigan, England, gave in to pressure from health advocates and cut back on contestants' consumption.
Competitors converged on the northwestern English town for 15 years to see who could eat the most meat pies in three minutes. But organizers changed the rules in 2006, presenting the award to the person who could eat a single meat pie in the fastest time. They also added a vegetarian category.
Athletes or gluttons?
In the U.S., the International Federation of Competitive Eating organizes about 80 eating contests a year, including The Turkey Bowl, scheduled to air Thursday on cable's Spike TV.
The group's chairman, George Shea, said competitive eaters are athletes who train for their sport, working to improve jaw strength and increasing their stomach capacity.
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"This is an entertainment product that has its roots in fairs and festivals and not a celebration of excess," Shea said. "It's a comedic thing — a combination of Coney Island hucksterism and sports commentary."
Janus said criticism of his sport demonstrates that people misunderstand the nation's obesity problem.
"Most of us are pretty thin and in pretty good shape. To say we're bad examples is misleading," the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Janus said.
A 30-year-old stock trader from New York City, he competes in about 30 contests a year and holds records in several categories, including tamales (71 in 12 minutes) and cannoli (28 in 6 minutes).
Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center in Boston, said concerns over the link between the contests and obesity aren't well founded.
"I think these competitions are somewhat caricatures of eating behavior ... and don't have much relevance to the obesity problem," he said.
'Like a dance'
Brian Wansink, a food science and psychology professor at Cornell University and an msnbc.com contributor, compared competitive eaters to other extreme athletes.
"It's the same sort of person who, let's say, would train really hard and compete really hard in a marathon," said Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."
"It has the same level of competitiveness and compulsiveness," he said. "One we label crazy and one we label as noble, but in reality it's the same sort of process that drives both these people."
Shea said there's no reason to be embarrassed about such events.
"Seeing these guys go at a 20 pound turkey is like poetry," he said. "It's like a dance."
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