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Making sport of gluttony

By Patrick Mattimore
Posted July 10, 2007

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics suggests that journalists should “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” It’s hard to square that admonition with the Mercury News’ continuing promotion of eating contests.

On Tuesday, July 3, the newspaper ran an above-the-fold Page 1A story about the “sport” of competitive eating. San Jose State University student Joey Chestnut was featured. This is not the first time that Chestnut nor competitive eating have made Mercury News headlines. But on Tuesday for the first time, the Merc included an editorial representing the combined wisdom of its editorial board. The editors wrote that competitive eating is reflective of  “Americans’ unhealthy ambivalence to food.” Nevertheless, the editorial recommended that San Jose should do something to honor Chestnut and should sponsor its own eating contest.

Annual studies from the California Department of Education repeatedly reveal that nearly three-quarters of the state’s fifth, seventh, and ninth graders flunk California’s physical fitness tests. Obesity rates for children and teens have tripled since the mid 1960s.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who retired last year, called the childhood obesity problem “every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today.”

Psychologists tell us that one of the most powerful and indelible learning experiences for children comes from seeing the behavior of others modeled. By feting Chestnut and sanctioning a rapid-eating contest, the city of San Jose would be putting its stamp of approval on the type of gluttonous behavior that is literally killing our children.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 300,000 deaths per year are associated with being obese or overweight.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 300,000 deaths per year are associated with being obese or overweight. According to Carmona, the risk of diabetes in children is on the upswing and for the first time children are being diagnosed with high blood pressure. The total direct and indirect costs attributed to overweight and obesity are well over $100 billion.

Patrick Mattimore

As a country, we have begun to recognize that bad nutritional choices and warp-speed consumption lead to poor health. Movies such as “Super Size Me” and best-selling books like “Fast Food Nation” have raised our consciousness about the perils of overeating, specifically with regard to our high-calorie, chain-restaurant lifestyle. Italians, who have half the percentage of overweight and obese people as in the U.S., eat at a much more leisurely pace and avoid the temptation to grab a quick bite, writes Giuliano Hazan, a cooking instructor and author of the book Every Night Italian. That might not be a bad model to emulate.

The entire industry of  “competitive eating” is promoted with tongue-in-cheek. One ESPN commentator suggested that Chestnut’s victory at this year’s July 4th hotdog eating contest was “the greatest moment in the history of American sport” and a “great day for America.” He compared Chestnut to American heroes Abraham Lincoln and Neil Armstrong.

Unhealthy eating behaviors are not funny, though, and should be divorced from sports and physical fitness entirely. Dignifying gluttony as sport sends the wrong message, particularly to kids. Sports talk radio stations and ESPN should rethink their decisions to promote eating contests as benign entertainment. The Mercury News, too, should revisit its editorial call on this issue.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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