I f money sets off conflicting emotions, food is right behind it. Challenge anyone in the developed world to a word-association game, and chances are good that two of the top ideas linked to eating will be pleasure and guilt. We love to eat, yet see thinness as a virtue and fat as a moral failing. That is why those speed-eating contests currently dominated by Japan’s own Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi cause so much heartburn.

Take the divided response to Mr. Kobayashi’s latest feat, winning the World Hamburger-Eating Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by downing 69 hamburgers in eight minutes. Even though they were miniburgers, that statistic is hard to digest.

Some people have expressed admiration and even awe — especially given Mr. Kobayashi’s skinniness. Many speed eaters are frankly obese, making the spectacle easier to condemn on both aesthetic and moral grounds: Here is the medieval sin of gluttony made flesh, as it were.

In the case of Mr. Kobayashi and the 45-kg American woman who is No. 2 in the world rankings, that response is averted. The two are viewed less as greedy freaks than as bizarre but fascinating physical phenomena.

Yet this hasn’t silenced critics who object to speed-eating contests regardless of how the contestants shape up. Some are simply disgusted by the sight of people “stuffing their faces” with food they don’t need. Others find it offensive to promote and celebrate overeating in a world where so many go hungry every day.

Both sides have a point. On the one hand, nobody is hurt if Mr. Kobayashi eats 69 hamburgers (except maybe Mr. Kobayashi). The food was not exactly on its way to Sudan. On the other hand, if all behavior has a symbolic aspect, then it’s hard not to agree that speed-eating contests symbolize little besides gross self-indulgence and waste.

Only one thing is really clear: These contests are like an image in a distorting mirror, grotesquely reflecting back at us our ambivalence about food. As long as that persists, so, one suspects, will our mixed feelings about Mr. Kobayashi.

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