Eating gone wild: the unhealthy side of competitive eating

Watching competitive eaters cram dozens of hot dogs down their gullets is both mesmerizing and nausea-inducing.

Apparently few do it better than Joey Chestnut, a 28-year-old from San Jose, Calif., (his nickname is “Jaws”) who won his sixth straight title this week in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest by downing 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. (The second-place winner only managed a paltry 52 hot dogs.)

What is the deal with competitive eating? At one time it was a fringe activity most often found at local fairs and on college campuses. These days it has gone mainstream, with televised contests, cash prizes and competitors who actually train for a shot at stardom.

Somewhere in here is a commentary on America’s disordered cultural attitudes towards food. But that’s fodder for another day. What I want to know is: How on Earth do they do it? And how does the human body tolerate it?

The reaction of most in the health community seems to be: Speed-stuffing yourself with that many hot dogs (or anything else, for that matter; other competitive eating contests involve burritos, oysters, meatballs, jalapeno peppers or pie)  is not good for you.

Health experts have been speaking out for some time against the so-called sport of competitive eating. The American Medical Association views it as an unhealthy practice akin to binge eating, with possible long-term consequences.

ABC’s Good Morning America tallied up the excess fat and calories consumed on July Fourth by the Nathan’s Famous hot dog-eating contestants (or “gurgitators,” as they’re often called) and came up with some whopping numbers. For instance, a Nathan’s hot dog contains about 300 calories; by this measure, Chestnut gorged himself on 20,400 calories in just 10 minutes – 10 times the number of daily calories recommended for adult men by the USDA.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine told Good Morning America, “I’m not sure if eating that many hot dogs can damage your blood, but it will probably raise your cholesterol level temporarily. And it puts a strain on your body’s organs to handle that amount of calories, fat and sodium all at once.”

Someone susceptible to high blood pressure who downs such massive amounts of sodium “is really rolling the dice and could end up in the hospital,” Ayoob said.

Here’s what many of us would really like to know: How do the contestants avoid, um, experiencing what’s known as a “reversal of fortune”? Answer: Often they don’t. In most contests, eaters are disqualified if they vomit during the actual competition. Sometimes this is extended through a set time after the contest has ended – say, two minutes. After that, gurgitators may reverse without penalty.

For the record, Chestnut told the media after his chow-down that he felt “good” and was “looking forward to next year already.”

Sonya Thomas, the 100-pound winner of the women’s competition (45 hot dogs) admitted she began feeling sick during the contest but kept going.

For all the criticism of the excess surrounding competitive eating, there’s been surprisingly little actual study of its effects on the human body. In one of the few investigations into how competitive eaters manage to consume so much at one time, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted imaging studies of a speed-eating champion matched with a control subject.

They wrote that the competitive eater’s stomach was extraordinarily adapted to his sport: “Unlike the control subject, the speed eater had markedly altered gastric physiology that enabled his stomach to rapidly accommodate an enormous quantity of ingested food by progressively expanding until it became a giant, flaccid sac occupying most of his upper abdomen.”

Interestingly, he was not overweight – and it seems many of the top-ranked eating contestants are quite trim, despite their sport. He told the researchers, however, that he had lost the ability to feel sated after a meal, and that he followed strict portion control in everyday eating.

It’s unclear what these findings mean for the long-term health of competitive eaters. This was an extremely tiny study, involving only one participant. Nevertheless, the researchers raise some key questions: What happens as competitive eaters get older, perhaps struggle with willpower and begin to engage in chronic binge eating? What’s the long-term impact of having a chronically dilated stomach?

The researchers conclude that speed eating “is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior that over time could lead to morbid obesity, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for gastric surgery.”

So there you have it. Only one hot dog at a time for me, thanks very much.

One thought on “Eating gone wild: the unhealthy side of competitive eating

  1. I think this trend of “competitive eating” is just another symptom of the dumbing down of our society collectively; it’s a gross style of entertainment that enthralls some people (who, apparently, are easily entertained); and it’s a chance for the eaters to get their fabled “15 minutes of fame.” I personally get sick when I read articles like this, basically because of the display of excess, and then there’s the fact of the people who can’t get a decent meal for lack of being able to afford it. Just seems so wrong to me. And of course, common sense would dictate that it isn’t good for you, and some of the facts in this article back that up.

    I, myself, don’t even eat hot dogs anymore, because they’re not good for you. Though as it is said, I supposed a hot dog now and then won’t kill you; “moderation in all things” is good wisdom.

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