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Chow Line: Overeaters Not-So-Anonymous

August 16, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman, JE Feature
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Few people can imagine eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes under the hazy Independence Day sun. Or the "Cool Hand Luke"-esque feat of downing 65 hard-boiled eggs in seven minutes or less. But for the newly crowned champions of competitive eating, such gastronomic trials are all in a day's work.

But what effect does this massive consumption have on the human body? Are humans really meant to inhale nearly 100 hamburgers in less than a quarter of an hour?

Over at Major League Eating, which runs many of these competitions, safety is paramount, said Ryan Nerz, media manager and emcee of some of the events.

"We keep the contest to around 15 eaters," explained Nerz, since that's about as many competitors as the officials can keep their eyes on. The contests last anywhere from 8 to 12 minutes. "It seems to be about the right time for them to reach their fill."

EMTs are stationed at contests, he added, and the league hasn't had anyone suffer from physical problems at events so far.

The league has encouraged contestants to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and discourages training for competitions. It also states on its Web site that youngsters should never try to eat for either speed or quantity.

"Our competitors are generally very healthy people," said Nerz, who only engage in this behavior about a half-dozen to a dozen times a year.

Too Much of a Good Thing
But the long-term effects of competitive eating on the body are still unknown.

"It's not an area that anyone's really an expert at," stated Harvey Guttmann, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Abington Memorial Hospital and president of Gastrointestinal Associates in Jenkintown. "If you overwhelm -- in a very short period of time -- the stomach's ability to accommodate to large volumes, there's an over-distention."

Such volume causes a greater likelihood for food to have to be expelled through vomiting. The large amount of food leads to a rise in pressure in the stomach that incites the individual to relieve the pressure, he said. It's very rare for a stomach to burst, since the body will try to expel the food through vomiting first.

Vomiting is uncomfortable, he noted, but generally safe. Severe vomiting with over-expansion of the stomach, however, can lead to bleeding from retching, in what is called a Mallory-Weiss tear: a tear of the lining of the esophagus where the blood vessels reside. An even greater danger is Boerhaave syndrome, in which the esophagus ruptures, usually caused by excessive, forceful vomiting, which, said Guttman, can become "a surgical emergency."

He added that "the stomach can be trained over time to accommodate these higher volumes. There's a certain inherent stiffness in the stomach; the stiffer the stomach, the higher the pressures when you put something in there."

A lot of the eaters are protective about how they train, insisted Nerz. Some try to stretch their capacity with a healthy food, such as cabbage. They also make sure someone's around while they're practicing, though Nerz reaffirmed that the league prefers contestants not to try to prepare for the contests at all.

While in the past, more hefty contestants have dominated the circuit, in recent years, the titles have been going to the fit and trim.

"There arose a theory called the 'belt of fat theory,' " said Nerz. In essence, it postulates that fat actually limits the effect of the stomach to expand. When Sonya Thomas, a woman barely weighing 100 pounds, started winning event after event, people started to rethink the old paradigms.

"To do this is quite a strain on the body," he noted, "and you have to be quite fit."

"There are probably two variables that I'm aware of" on what allows people to succeed in this behavior, said Guttmann. Stomachs can be of different sizes, he noted, and some stomachs can expand more easily than others.

"I'm not sure necessarily that the size of the individual can predict what stomach will be larger," he continued.

The main danger, the doctor concluded, seems to be a likelihood of developing the health issues that go with weight gain, yet to date, there are "no clear-cut, long-term consequences." 

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