Professional Pigs

The Burgeoning Sport of
Competitive Food Eating

By Buck Wolf

Jan. 29, 2002  Grab a fork. Loosen your belt. And open wide. The fame and fortune of competitive food eating is coming your way.

Gluttony is not just a growing health problem. Now, it's a sport, complete with a sanctioning body and championship matches all over the world, where fans watch their champions devour hot dogs, pizza, pickles, matzo balls and chicken wings in mass quantities.

Top eaters from around the world will meet Feb. 21 at The Glutton Bowl, a two-hour event on Fox Television. In March, the Discovery Network will examine the phenomena in a documentary titled Gut Busters.

"The sport is really coming into its own," says Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, a sanctioning body that organizes events like the Philly Wing Bowl and the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The Burger Meister's Thrills

For folks like Don "Moses" Lerman, the former owner of a day-old bread shop from New York, it's a dream come true. Lerman is the reigning burger meister, having wolfed down 11 ¼ burgers in 10 minutes last year.

"I'll stretch my stomach until it causes internal bleeding," he says. "I do it for the thrill of competition. Some people are good at math. Some people are good at golf. I'm good at eating."

Lerman, 42, says he trains every day to stay in top shape. Like most competitive eaters, he drinks massive amounts of water, more than a gallon at a time, to stretch his stomach. Only rookies think that fasting helps.

"You don't have to be big. You just have to want it," he says. "When you've eaten your 12th matzo ball in under three minutes, you have reach deep within yourself to finish number 13."

Don't Worry: Size Doesn't Matter

Eating is another one of those activities where boastful men say size doesn't matter. A legend of the eating circuit, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, weighed in at only 131 pounds last year, when he shattered the Nathan's hot dog eating contest, devouring 50 dogs in 12 minutes.

In Japan, where food eating is taken very seriously, competitive eaters can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. The sport has not evolved that far in America. The winner of the Ben's Kosher Deli's 2002 Matzo Ball Eating Contest, Oleg Zohornitskiy, walked off with a modest $2,500 prize, after eating a record-breaking 16 ¼ matzo balls in five minutes, 25 seconds.