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…


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.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Just before Christmas I was at an artisan food market in my other guise as a food producer. To my left and juxtaposed against Glamorous Jam was a friend and baker who specialises in ‘clean cakes’; free from refined sugar, wheat flour and with lots of raw, ‘plant-based’ ingredients. She has developed something of a cult following with people returning from a local yoga class looking for a ‘guilt-free treat’. That morning the baker was engaged in a conversation with a fan; a mother who was telling her about her ethos on food. Sugar is poison and verboten in her home. She spoke with pride about how her husband used to cook a lot of the meals when they first dated but how she refused to let him cook now; from the moment that she became pregnant with their daughter she had taken total control of the kitchen.

As she spoke her daughter wandered off and approached me. Bright and inquisitive she asked,

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s jam.’

‘Does it have gluten in?’

‘No, it doesn’t. Why do you ask?’

‘I’m not allowed to eat gluten.’

‘Why is that?’

‘I don’t know I just know that it is bad.’ She paused and then asked, ‘How do you make it?’

‘Well, you put some fruit and some sugar in pan and….’

She interrupted with a gasp and her tiny face pinched into an expression mixed of disgust and dismay. ‘It’s got a lot of sugar in it!’

‘Well, yes, it has.’


‘How old are you?’


She turned and walked back towards her mother who was preparing to leave when the girl pointed to a small dial operated vending machine, the kind that sells only one product. There were two machines side by side. One selling Pringles and the other Skittles. The girl pointed, could she try some of those?

‘NO!’ This was from both her mother and the baker.

‘You don’t want those. Those are disgusting!’ the baker told her.

‘No, you must never eat those,’ her mother added, ‘Listen to what she says. She is a master chef so she knows.’

This conversation left me disturbed for a number of reasons, all related to my work as a psychologist working with people struggling with disordered eating and eating disorders. With the caveat that I know nothing about this woman – I don’t know whether it was difficult for the couple to conceive or whether her daughter was a sickly infant. I know nothing about the mother’s own history with food. My thoughts are solely a synthesis of my clinical experience and my observation of both this mother and child.

My fear is that it will be impossible for this young girl to grow up without a conflicted relationship with food, for the following reasons:

1. This girl is explicitly being taught to fear food. She doesn’t know why but she knows that gluten is ‘bad’. Maybe she is gluten intolerant. Maybe. I got the sense that she was bright enough to say if she had been diagnosed with Coeliac Disease. That did not seem to be the case. Rather she had a vague sense of the ability of gluten to harm her. Others have written at length about the lack of plausible evidence behind this assertion, but often, in online wellness blogs and books, gluten is demonised as an anti-nutrient. In truth it is employed as a specious reason to restrict carbohydrate intake for weight loss reasons. But the largely unfounded warnings about its dangers persist.

2. What is implicit in this ‘How to Fear Food: 101’ is what this young girl is being taught about her body. The human body is incredibly resourceful and robust and childhood is a time of rapid cell growth, development and repair. It is a time of exploration and discovery of what the body is capable of and the carefree joy of movement. Yet, already at the age of six, this girl is being taught that her body is fragile and that a handful of crisps present a significant danger to it.

3. She will come to understand that her mother’s approval of her is linked to the types of food that she chooses to eat. To put it another way she will learn that, at least in this aspect, her mother’s acceptance of her is conditional; she can please or displease her mother based on the food she chooses to put in her own body. This is particularly harmful in a society where girls are taught to be good, sweet and obedient. This kind of conditioning prevents her from learning to make food choices based on her own appetite and wants. As a consequence, it will, I believe, be much harder for this young girl as she grows up to drown out the external rules about food and the voices – from magazines, untrained bloggers, peers etc. – telling her what she should eat.

4. Clearly this young girl is curious about these forbidden foods. We know that making a food off-limits, whether we are dieting or under instruction, tends to make that food more attractive and encourages food rumination (excessive food thoughts). Caught between her innate curiosity and the restrictions imposed by her mother I worry that the scene is set for later binge and/or secret eating. It is easy to imagine: as an adolescent with greater control over her diet she perhaps sees her friends eating foods that have been denied her and suffering no obvious ill effects. Knowing that her mother would not approve, and, on some level, having internalised this contempt for sugar-sweetened or ‘unclean’ foods, she can only allow herself to eat them furtively, in secret. Perhaps she must have as many of them at once. Afterwards, knowing that she has transgressed, she experiences a deep sense of guilt and ‘weakness’ for not having been able to resist these foods. To get rid of this feeling and in order to feel ‘clean’ again she purges and returns to the clean, ‘safe’ foods, until the next time.

5. Alternatively, she simply rebels. A part of her, angry and frustrated by the intense dietary scrutiny and control that has been exercised over her, just chooses to disobey. Susie Orbach’s (1978) seminal work on women’s struggles with food and their bodies poses the argument that, for many women, obesity is the physical manifestation of a psychological rebellion against the familial and societal mores placed on women.

I recently saw this mother and child again. The mother came to find the clean cakes but, discovering them unavailable, she was not interested in anything else. As the mother asked about the absent vendor her daughter wandered towards another stall. There stood two talented patissiers, the pastry chefs for a renowned middle-eastern chef and food writer, displaying their handmade cakes. Caramelised brownies concealing a clever layer of crisp feuilletine; a perfectly straight-edged all-butter sablé tart filled with fragrant passion fruit curd and topped with a fan of spiced, marinated fresh pineapple. Delicious foods made with excellent quality ingredients by skilled and passionate chefs. Before the girl could ask about them her mother called her away. There was nothing here for her.

I hope this does not read as a castigation of a mother who I understand is trying to do the very best for her child. Evidently, she and her partner are doing a good job: they are raising an inquisitive, confidant daughter. I will be joyous with relief to, in 10 years’ time, be proved undisputedly wrong. But when I work with young women (the majority of my work with eating disordered clients has been with women, both individually and in groups) who have so lost connection with their own bodies that they cannot tell whether they are hungry or full. When they describe how they ‘know’ their value to their parents is contingent on their appearance. When their own opinions have been so degraded that they don’t even bother to disagree anymore, not at least with words, instead their rage is expressed through their aggression towards their own bodies. When you sit with someone who is in despair about whether they deserve dinner, you become less hopeful. Not hopeless, never hopeless, but the path between what I saw in the market and what I see in clinic is well-trodden, and it makes me sad for the loss of freedom and vibrancy in these beautiful young people.

And that’s why I am angry. Because I worry about the lost hours, months and years of discovery, pleasure and productivity that lie ahead for children and adolescents raised in environments of harmful restriction and food fear. When children are taught to ignore their appetites, deny their curiosity, and distrust their own bodies. When, at the same time that they are being taught that it is morally wrong to hit, kick or be unkind, children are receiving messages about the ‘goodness and badness’ of certain foods, their own appetites inappropriately become part of a moral dilemma. Am I a bad person for wanting to eat crisps? Will my mother be hurt if she finds out I ate those biscuits? Somewhere down the line these questions mutate into a deeply held doubt as to whether their bodies are truly their own or whether other people will always have the right to tell them what to do with them. Of course, we need to raise our children with an appreciation of healthy and delicious foods and a caring respect for their bodies, but this must be done free from emotional conditions, nameless fear and moralising or else their physical health will be the least of our worries.




Hart, K. E. & Chiovari, P. (1998). Inhibition of eating behaviour: Negative cognitive effects of dieting. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54, 427-430.

Herman, C. P., & Mack, D. (1975). Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of Personality, 43, 647–660.

Orbach, S. (1978). Fat is Feminist Issue. London: Paddington Press.

Sumithran, P., Predergast, L., Delbridge, E., Purcell, K. Shulkes, A., Kriketos, A., & Proietto, J. (2011). Long-Term Persistence of Hormonal Adaptations to Weight Loss. New England Journal of Medicine, 365, 1597-1604.