Competitive Under-Eating: That Harmful Thing You are Probably Doing and Why You Have to Stop

Joey Chestnut stands at 6 foot 1inch tall but in the world of competitive eating his figure looms much larger. In 2016 he regained the championship belt by consuming 70 hotdogs and buns in 10 minutes. Two month later he held on to the US Chicken Wing Eating Championship by eating 188 wings in 12 minutes. Joey trains for his feats with a combination of fasting and stretching his stomach by drinking gallons of water. It’s a dangerous ‘sport’ as the legal disclaimers attest. The harms of competitive eating are obvious and well-documented so I am not going to talk about them here. I’m concerned about a competitive eating behaviour that happens towards the other end of the spectrum.

Competitive Undereating doesn’t draw the same crowds as Joey and his rivals – though it does require an audience of sorts – and there is isn’t any prize money. There is nothing in it but a misguided sense of triumph, the creation of tension at mealtimes and the risk of psychological harm. Competitive Undereating is a subtle and complex behaviour where a person strives to demonstrate that they have or will eat less than someone else. It can be used to signal that eater isn’t ‘greedy’ or ‘bad’ or that they have superior ‘control’ over their appetites. It is linked with maladaptive perfectionism (the unhealthy kind) and can trigger more serious eating issues in the eater and those around them.

Shared student houses are a hotbed of dietary restriction and I think it is linked to Social Comparison Theory. This theory states that to manage our self-esteem we are driven to make comparisons between ourselves and others. A downward comparison means we look for someone who is ‘worse’ than us to make ourselves feel better. For groups where academic achievement is on a par (such as medical students, for example), physical appearance and attractiveness are the next best targets for comparison. Moving out of home and having to manage budgets and meals for the first time is stressful and can lead to the development of harmful behaviours in those vulnerable. Being thrown in to a group living situation can raise worries about whether you or the way you eat is ‘normal’. Do you eat the ‘right’ foods? Does the way you eat seem weird to other people? Added to that is the unconscious drive, when we are in groups, to establish a hierarchy to see who is the ‘Alpha’. Now the conditions are set for the flourishing of anxiety-driven competition.

But it is not just in unrelated groups. It is common to find Competitive Undereating among households. Siblings do it against each other, especially if one child has already been dubbed ‘The Thin/Small/Skinny One’. Mothers do it with their daughters more than society would like to admit.

Competitive Undereating is not an eating disorder, though it is a sign of disordered eating. I am sure, though, that most people who engage in this harmful, unproductive behaviour don’t even realise it. Simply, they have been around it, and doing it for so long that they do not even notice anymore. Worrying about what someone else thinks of our eating instead of what we ourselves want has become automatic. To understand whether you, or someone around you, is a Competitive Under-Eater, you need to first know what it looks like. Family or group mealtimes are where this kind of behaviour is most obvious. Let’s imagine you and your housemates/friends/colleagues/family are going out for dinner…

Preparation

The competition begins long before arrival at the chosen eatery. Perhaps the choosing of typically low calorie cuisine (e.g. Thai, Japanese or vegan) is an attempt to minimise calorie consumption from the outset. For a Competitive Under-Eater the venue can be the first signal of status. ‘I’m choosing the healthy option because that’s better. I don’t allow my cravings to determine my choices’. If not, if, say, the choice is pizza or burgers then the menu is scanned beforehand, not for efficiency, or in excited expectation, but to find the lowest calorie, healthiest item. The ‘best’ choice.

At The Restaurant

At the restaurant or dinner table we begin to see the different types and strategies of Competitive Undereating. I call them The Proclaimers, Surveyors, Sirens and The Compensators.

The Proclaimers

Sadly, I am not talking about the cheerful Scottish duo (but now the song is in your head). These Proclaimers take two forms, but both involve making an announcement about previous eating.

‘I haven’t eaten anything all day!’ It is less important whether this is or is not a factual statement. The point of the proclamation is set the Proclaimer out as the most ‘controlled’, the best denier of hunger. In a world where being thin is the sign of success, not eating all day is an achievement.

Of course, not everyone who turns up at dinner saying they are starving is competitively undereating. What’s we’re talking about here is the meaning, the intent behind the statement.

The alternative proclamation is something along the lines of, ‘I’ve already eaten’ or ‘I had a big lunch’. This is incredibly common in restrictive eaters and serves to legitimise later under-eating. It is a pre-emptive strike aimed at stopping others from enquiring why they are eating so little.

The Surveyors

Surveyors take an audit of the menu choices of the rest of the group.

  • What are you having?
  • How many courses are you going to have?
  • Are you going to have bread?
  • Are you going to get dessert?

Again, this is less about the specific behaviour. There are plenty people who are so excited by the whole menu that they just want to talk about. In the mind of a Competitive Under-Eater, though, the value of the survey is to inform their own selection. ‘Well, I don’t want to be seen to be having more than anyone else. I don’t want to look greedy. I don’t want them to think that I eat ‘too much’.’ For this person finding out what everyone else is having is driven by the anxiety of not wanting to stand out or seem different.

The Sirens

I call this group/behaviour the Sirens because, like the mythological creatures, they lure others in to a trap. For example, they may talk about how delicious the dessert menu looks, how they have been craving cheesecake all week. When it comes time to order, feigning indecision, they insist that everyone else order first and then, at the very last moment, decline. The satisfaction here is knowing now that others will be eating more than they have and again signalling their superior ‘control’.  

The Compensators

Whether it comes at the start or the end of the meal Compensators make a public statement about ‘working off’ their food, of the need to undo the harm of eating. Comments like:

‘I’m gonna have to go for the longest run in the morning!’

‘It’s a good thing I did spin this afternoon!’

They may not have under-eaten but this kind of comment makes clear that the speaker has or will have a calorie deficit compared to the other diners and suggests that everyone else should emulate their behaviour.  

What’s The Problem?

The reason this kind of behaviour concerns me is because of the psychological repercussions. Imperceptible at first, with time the behaviours can bed in to become an established pattern.

To start with Competitive Undereating habitualises the judgement of self and others. Silent disapproval becomes second nature. It means that even (or especially) when sitting down to eat everyone at the table is being quietly assessed and critiqued. It creates anxiety (which in itself impairs digestion) and prevents full enjoyment of the meal. It gets in the way of real, healthy social interaction. Competitive Undereating comes between people because, ultimately, the attention is focused back on the self. Whatever the other people are doing or eating you are always thinking about how it relates to, reflects on or affects you.

Secondly, it consumes thinking and is a colossal waste time, energy and creativity.

Third, Competitive Undereating can trigger and perpetuate eating disorders, and hinder recovery. It can be incredibly difficult for someone in recovery to start to rebuild a healthy relationship with food if they continue to be exposed to Competitive Undereating or judgement about their food choices. Not least of all because comparing your food intake to someone else’s ignores biological, metabolic, genetic, hormonal and lifestyle differences between you.

Competitive-Under-Eating looks harmless but it can lay the foundations for deeper problems with food, eating and self-esteem. If you recognise yourself or someone close to you as a Competitive Under-Eater it can be helpful to remind yourself that what you eat does not affect other people and vice versa. It’s dinner. It’s not a competition.

 

If you think you might have a problem with your relationship with food it may be helpful to talk to a professional. Psychologists and registered nutritionists who specialise in Intuitive or Mindful Eating can help you develop a more relaxed, natural relationship with food.