What if I told you that eating a hot dog could improve your health and help save the planet? Joey Chestnut seems to think so.

If you read the Bleacher Report this week, you know the buzz: reigning champion Joey Chestnut (16-time champion!) has been banned from the 2024 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

My kids have been fans, faithfully watching Chestnut compete year after year. I, however, have made a habit of not watching. Watching someone gorge themselves (potentially to the point of vomiting) is repugnant, especially knowing that people, including children, in our communities, suffer from food insecurity. And hot dogs? Even when I was a meat-eater, learning the ingredients in most hot dogs was enough to turn my stomach.

Admittedly, there is something about the good, old American hot dog that brings us together, isn’t there?

And Joey Chestnut is synonymous with hot dogs. His snafu? He accepted a partnership with plant-based Impossible Foods, which recently rolled out its new vegan hot dog. Nathan’s promptly banned him from their contest. Chestnut was “gutted.” Meanwhile, a colleague remarked on how choices have consequences and wondered how Chestnut was even able to sign with another company. (Note: Chestnut never signed with Nathan’s; though Nathan’s reserves the right to refuse participation to anyone with a partnership with a rival company. Fair.)

The news whirlwind is dizzying. Major League Eating and Nathan’s are spinning their wheels, hoping to get Chestnut back. But Netflix has already arranged another matchup between Chestnut and his rival, Takeru Kobayashi. Financial analysts speculate whether Chestnut will “save the plant-based industry.” I’m wondering if he’ll help rescue us and our planet. Could his actions spark a larger conversation about climate action and our role in creating a more sustainable future?

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Remember that in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a bold declaration: processed meat is carcinogenic. Alongside the World Cancer Research Fund International, WHO urged us to cut back on processed and red meat, citing strong links to colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers. Five years later, the American Cancer Society echoed these recommendations and updated its guidelines urging us to rethink our meat consumption for better health.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has advocated for plant-based diets to save both people and our planet. We know of the devastating impact of animal agriculture — think deforestation to methane emissions and water pollution. Plant-based diets not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also demand significantly less energy, land, and water compared to their meat-based counterparts. It’s a win-win for the earth and our well-being.

So, in 2015, WHO decided hot dogs were on par with mustard gas, but here we are in 2024, banning our national hot dog-eating champion for endorsing a heart-healthier alternative. The writing is on the wall but we’re not heeding the advice. 1 in 5 children and 2 in 5 adults are obese, chronic disease is on the rise, cancer has increased by 79% globally among people under the age of 50 and our climate crisis is critical, but we’re still reluctant to take decisive action.

Is Joey Chestnut a tree-hugger now? Doubtful. Is he giving up meat entirely? No. But in an era where the climate crisis is almost beyond saving, the shift to plant-based foods isn’t just trendy; it’s a necessity. By partnering with Impossible Foods, Chestnut might be doing more than endorsing a product — he could be paving the way for a cultural shift. If the biggest name in competitive eating can embrace plant-based alternatives, maybe it’s a sign that the rest of us can, too.

But if we know one way of eating has so many benefits and another can cause so much harm, why aren’t we doing it? Let’s not be naive. The dairy, fish, and meat industries have no interest in Americans eating less of their products. Their lobby groups work tirelessly to ensure alternatives seem less healthy or to make people feel guilty for “choosing” something different. I remember a discussion with someone from the Department of Agriculture years ago at a White House event on healthy eating for children. We both agreed that a child with dairy allergies can get their required nutrients from alternate sources. Yet, the governmental MyPlate educational tool uses language that can make kids feel like having an allergy is a choice, or worse, that their families may not be feeding them properly or meeting their nutritional needs.

Then there’s the reality that many of us consciously make unhealthy food choices and take real offense to anyone meddling in our kitchens. I get it. I really do. But when is the right time to have this discussion? After a loved one has a heart attack? Or after we experience hurricane-like storms in Maine December and our planet is on fire?

Exactly. What are we waiting for?

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