Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?

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Eating contests used to be strictly county-fair stuff. Now, they’re becoming a serious sport.

This summer, Joey Chestnut ingested a record 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes at the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Sixty-six is just a number, until you make a comparison: How many hot dogs do you think you could down in 12 minutes? Maybe five? Six?

An estimated 50,000 people were in attendance at Coney Island to watch Chestnut stuff his face. Many more watched on ESPN, which began televising the competitions in 2004.

“When I started doing these contests, there were maybe fifty to a hundred people watching,” Chestnut tells WebMD. Chestnut has only been competing for two years. “Now,” he says, “there are tons of people, whether it’s a small or big venue. People are asking me for autographs.”

As the size of the audience for competitive eating has grown, so has the prize money. Chestnut won $10,000 along with his Yellow Belt at the Nathan’s contest.

The level of competition has also been kicked up a notch. The Nathan’s competition dates to 1916, but back in 2000 the record was a measly 25 dogs. This year, all 10 of the top finishers beat that mark.

Chestnut — ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating — attributes his accomplishments to hard work, not gluttony. But many doctors worry that competitive eating can have dangerous consequences. And some dietitians worry that the sport sends the wrong message at a time when water intoxication is also a concern. Water intoxication is a deadly syndrome that results from dilution of indigestion.

Metz studied how Janus’s stomach handled huge amounts of food. In normal individuals, he tells WebMD, a full stomach sends a message via the vagus nerve to the , which then orders the stomach to contract and send food into the small intestine. Competitive eaters somehow block that signal even as their stomach stretches to enormous proportions. Otherwise, their digestion processes appear normal, he says.

Metz suspects that competitive eaters may have some natural ability to stretch their stomachs and may also be able to train the muscles in the stomach wall. To know more, he says, he’ll have to study an eater over the course of a career. But Metz does know enough to be concerned about some potential long-term effects of competitive eating. “>brain to switch off, then you’re at risk of obesity,” he says.

Another serious risk, Metz says, is , or stomach paralysis. If the stomach muscles are repeatedly overstretched, they may ultimately fail to contract, and the stomach will lose its ability to empty itself. Usually associated with diabetes, gastroparesis can cause chronic indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. It has no effective cure, Metz says.

Metz is impressed with top eaters’ discipline and natural abilities. But for the general public, he has a message: “People shouldn’t try this at home.”