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Ah, gluttony . . . the new American pastime. In the late sixth century, people committed the sin of gula when they withheld food from the needy, wrongly desired the sensuality of eating, or simply overindulged. What would they have thought of eating contests?

A Record-Setting Eater
Against the Grain
Mondays Go Meatless
A Weighty Problem at ROTC
Rome's Reclining Diners
Put Down That Fork


An Elite Eater
Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti was just your average nude model/window washer/struggling screenwriter back in 2002 when he came out of nowhere to slurp down 168 oysters in 10 minutes and break the world oyster-eating record.

"Competitive eating is not a gluttonous act," says Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti. "These are highly trained pro athletes at the top of their game."
Photo by Sabrina Asch
Soon after, Conti, A&S '93, turned pro and became a card-carrying member of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. He now holds world records for popcorn eating (7 bags in 12 minutes), French cut green beans (2.71 pounds in 6 minutes), and pancakes (3.5 pounds of pancakes and a half-pound of bacon in 12 minutes) and ranks 15th on the professional eating circuit. A documentary about the 33-year-old's rise from competitive eating fan to title-owning pro — called Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating — aired on the Arts and Entertainment cable TV network in June. "It's like the Breaking Away of competitive eating," says Conti.

Conti represents a new breed of competitive eater. He carries a mere 213 pounds on his 6 foot, 3 inch frame. He works out, training not just his body but also his mind and his gag reflex to face off against such fierce competitors as Cookie Jarvis (21 cannoli in 6 minutes), Sonya Thomas (11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes), and No. 1�ranked Takeru Kobayashi (57 cow brains in 15 minutes). "Somehow Kobayashi and Sonya Thomas have trained their minds to control their bodies to process food better than any human in history," Conti says. "They are like human wood chippers."

With hot dog eating season upon us, and in light of Conti's quest to best Kobayashi at his record of eating 53.5 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, Johns Hopkins Magazine asked him to share some highlights of his training schedule with us.

What he does for exercise: Runs five to six miles three mornings a week across the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Sometimes while jogging succumbs to the aroma of freshly made Elvis doughnuts (banana cream�filled, peanut butter�glazed) emanating from the Donut Plant on the Lower East Side. "My jog is a test of endurance and willpower," he says. Conti also hits the gym three days a week.

How he trains to eat big: Sure, he's trained with a sword-swallower, but Conti is more likely to practice with drills like "the six dog sprint" (in which he times himself consuming six hot dogs) or to compare whether mass quantities of hot dog buns go down easier when dipped in water first. "Training is mostly technique," he says. "It's about figuring out the most efficient way to eat one of the food, and then extrapolating."

The mental game of competitive eating: Visualization is key to Conti's success. "I learned this from Hopkins basketball coach Ed Richardson, who said, 'Anything you want in life you must see it in your mind's eye. See yourself reaching the goal, be it scoring a jump shot, a free lunch, or a date with a girl.' I use visualization frequently. I also watch a lot of video of other eaters, particularly Kobayashi."

Conti wolfs down hot dogs at the Nathan's contest.
Photo by Sabrina Asch

On hot dogs: Last year Conti's personal best was 18-and-a-half hot dogs and buns at the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest. "This year I have to do the deuce: 20 hot dogs and buns. That's what separates the yeoman from the novice." But it won't be easy. "As good as a Nathan's hot dog is, after eight or nine of them they get to you. The dogs have that taste and the buns are like soggy packing material. I might not eat for 36 hours afterward." (Editor's note: Conti wound up coming in 13th in the competition, by ingesting 19 dogs and buns in 12 minutes. Kobayashi defended his title by eating 49 hot dogs.)

On gluttony: "Competitive eating is not a gluttonous act," Conti says. "Gluttony is people overindulging. These are highly trained pro athletes at the top of their game knowing the exact amount they can consume." —MB


Against the Grain
Robert S. Lawrence recalls a photograph that appeared recently in The New York Times. It was a picture of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists from the Manhattan Project, snapped in 1943. "What caught my eye," says Lawrence, "was that these eight or nine men were all thin as a rail. It was a cultural norm."

No longer. Lawrence, in his capacity as director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, knows well the statistics on the increasing size and appetites of Americans. He also understands what they eat and what that means for the U.S. food system, the environment, and the future of global sustainability. Tens of millions of Americans eat too much, and that overconsumption, especially of meat, has consequences way beyond their hardened arteries and expanding girth.

Says Lawrence, "We see overconsumption as an important driver, on the demand side, of the industrialization of agriculture." Intensive industrial farming practices — the high-production megafarms that have replaced so many small, local, family farms — rely on high inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms tend to be farther away from the people who consume their crops, which means more burning of fossil fuels to distribute food over longer distances.

In particular, Americans' gluttonous consumption of meat has implications beyond flabby physiques. Eating red meat is an inefficient means of ingesting nutrients. Lawrence notes that the average American consumes about 800 kilograms of grain per year, while the average Italian consumes 400, the average Taiwanese 300, and the average Indian 200. And it's not because Yanks are eating two-to-three times as many bowls of Cheerios or fresh baguettes. To produce a kilogram of beef requires, on average, seven kilograms of grain, says Lawrence; four kilograms of grain go into a kilogram of pork. So, eat a hamburger and you're not only consuming ground beef, you're consuming all the grain that fed the animal before it ended up on the bun. Lawrence says, "We are diverting resources, grains in particular — corn, wheat, soybeans — to feed the 9 billion animals we consume every year in the United States. Those resources could be used in the world food program to address inequities in food availability elsewhere." —DK


With Meat, Less is More
Americans eat too much meat and not enough of the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that help prevent heart disease, stroke, and cancer. That's the philosophy behind the Meatless Monday campaign, a national public health effort that works in association with Hopkins'
Bloomberg School of Public Health and 28 other schools of public health in the nation. Their goal: to reduce Americans' consumption of saturated fat by at least 15 percent by 2010.

Going meatless one day a week seems a reasonable way to start. If the prospect sounds daunting, check out the upbeat Meatless Monday Web site (, which offers everything from an informative chili glossary (bulgur wheat "makes for a hearty meat substitute in chili") to a Food Forum, where readers can dish on hot nutrition topics like the new food pyramid and the craze for low carbs. The site also features recipes from New York chef Ian Russo, whose East Side restaurant Ian is known for fare that's both delicious and healthy. (Toward that end, you won't want to miss his recipe for Filet of Sole over Garlic Lentils.)

Why Monday — and not Meatless Wednesday or Sunday? "Well, for one thing, we like the way Meatless Monday sounds," the Web site's creators admit. But there's a more practical reason as well: "Many people can overindulge during the weekend — going meatless on Monday is a great way to start the week off on a healthy note." —SD


A Weighty Problem at ROTC
Cadets in the
ROTC program at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere must be in top physical condition — including maintaining a weight that, in ratio to height, meets Army standards.

Enrollment officer Captain Amy Wallace was therefore alarmed when two freshman female cadets returned to campus after the holiday break last January looking, well . . . larger. Each had gained more than 20 pounds in the first six months of her freshman year. "I had to help them get this under control," says Wallace. "They were in danger of losing their scholarships."

So she brought in nutritionist Rebecca McDivitt from the Student Health and Wellness Center to make a presentation to all the ROTC cadets about basic nutrition. "I talked with them about balancing intake with exercise," McDivitt says. "This group needed to make an adjustment. Many of them had been high school athletes used to training two, three hours a day in their sports. When they got to college their activity level was lowered, so they had to cut back their intake."

In fact, freshman weight gain (jokingly dubbed the "Freshman 15") is a reality for students across Hopkins, not just those in ROTC, says Health and Wellness Center director Alain Joffe. He blames several factors. For one thing, there are no parents around to warn new students away from pizza, chicken nuggets, and nachos — all found in abundance at campus eateries. And alcohol consumption can also pack on the pounds.

In conjunction with the Office of Education for Health and Wellness, Joffe says his department has plans to ratchet up efforts to combat unhealthy weight gain and obesity: "The habits people form in their adolescence and early adult years are those they will continue through life. And though the dangers — of diabetes, heart disease — occur later, the college years are critical for prevention." —HM


Dining in Recline
The tales of gluttonous Romans — lavishly feasting their days and nights away, visiting the vomitorium, then doing it all again — are famous. Alas, they don't reflect the way most Romans ate.

In reality, if you lived in ancient Rome and wanted to throw an extravagant dinner party, all you really needed was a big mullet and a couple of couches. The mullet was a four-pound fish, a prestige item that wealthy Romans served to guests to flaunt their status.

As for the couch, well, that's an interesting story.

Illustration by
Giblert Ford
"One thing to know about dining in the ancient Mediterranean was that people of great privilege dined reclining on couches," says Matthew Roller, chair of classics at Johns Hopkins and author of a soon-to-be-published book Dining Posture in Ancient Rome: Bodies, Values, and Status (Princeton University Press, 2006). Large dining couches were placed around a low table. All the guests got to recline, while the most honored guests were placed closest to the host. Diners would customarily lean on their left hands and use their right hands to scoop finger food from platters circulated by servants. "A full-scale Roman dinner party could last hours," Roller says.

The earliest representation of a reclining diner is from ca. 650 B.C. and shows an Assyrian king dining while reclining on a couch. Over the next few centuries, aristocrats around the Mediterranean basin adopted the posture, perhaps in imitation of the "kingly" practice. Popularity of this way of dining spread to all free people over time. "By the early second century B.C., all free people reclined to eat," Roller says. In fact, an A.D. 500 mosaic hanging in a church in Ravenna, Italy, depicts Jesus and the Apostles reclining at the Last Supper. But the luxury didn't last. "By the fifth or sixth century A.D., the whole practice of reclining dining died out," Roller says. "It just stops happening for reasons that are very unclear."

Perhaps the practice caused too much indigestion. Or maybe the Romans got too hungry waiting for their food to come to them. "One thing about reclining — it's not easy to jump up and down," Roller says. "People have to come to you." —MB


Put Down That Fork
The first thing Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center director Lawrence Cheskin wants you to know is that it would be a mistake to equate obesity and gluttony.

"You can only gain weight if you're eating more than your body is burning as energy," says Cheskin. So depending on your underlying metabolic rate, your level of physical activity, and yes, the amount of food you eat, you can be overweight and not be a glutton. (Or you can be a glutton and not be overweight.) That being said, "we do seem to have an epidemic of 'gluttony' — if you will — and that has got something to do with our habits," Cheskin says.

The second thing he wants you to know is that, if you are one of those people who tends to eat more calories than you burn, old habits die hard. Of the patients who make it through the Weight Management program, only 30 percent report success in keeping the weight off one to five years later.

"It's very hard to break the habit because it's so pervasive that we use food inappropriately," says Cheskin. "We celebrate with food, we console ourselves with food, it's a boredom reliever, and we're assaulted with ads encouraging us to eat — but not encouraging us to eat fruits and vegetables."

The secret to losing weight and keeping it off, Cheskin says, is vigilance. "Persistence is really key to weight control in our society. . . . The majority of people can lose some weight, but most will regain the weight fairly quickly unless they make lasting changes to the way they approach their lives."

In fact, he says, the people who are the most successful are those who track their habits — weighing in regularly, keeping a food log or a workout diary — in the long term.

Here are a few more of Cheskin's hints on curbing your own gluttony:

Identify what gets you in trouble. People have different bad habits, says Cheskin. Some junk out at night, others eat when they're upset. "You have to understand other ways to deal with those issues. It takes stepping back and examining what you do."

Find alternatives that don't involve food, or that involve foods that don't get you into trouble. "If you have a sweet tooth, convince yourself that zero-calorie Jell-O is fine."

Don't be a purist. "You don't have to only eat nuts and twigs," Cheskin says.

Change your taste buds. If you're used to slathering your food with butter, try pepper or spices instead. "There's nothing inherent in our genetics that says we have to like greasy foods," he says. "Eventually you may prefer the taste of pepper."

Let your body tell you when to eat. "If you ask a group of obese people, when was the last time you were physically hungry, you'll get a blank look," Cheskin says. "Because we don't get hungry." Instead we eat because something looks good, or we're stressed, or a commercial tells us to.

Remember that this is a health issue, not just a social issue. Obesity leads to all sorts of chronic health problems — including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and joint problems. "If you smoke and are overweight, you've just forfeited 13 years of your life," says Cheskin. "I can't imagine anyone leaving 13 years on the table by choice." —CP


Fat and Happy

Photo by
Will Kirk
The Fat God was a common subject for Mesoamerican sculpture from 600 B.C. to A.D. 900. This one, which resides in Hopkins' Archaeological Collection, is a Mayan limestone relief that most likely came from a temple in Campeche, Mexico, and dates back more than 1,000 years. "In most cases, the Fat God appears in full figure with a corpulent face and belly, and half-closed eyes," says Lisa DeLeonardis, a lecturer in Johns Hopkins' Department of the History of Art. "The Maya also depict him lying on his back with an exaggerated stomach. To the best of my knowledge, he is always male."

He's pretty cute — but don't be fooled by his pleasant countenance. DeLeonardis points to the sculpture's association with gluttony, noting, "The Fat God is not venerated, but rather stands as a reminder that excesses are bad." —AL

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