Competitive eaters may lose in long-term health

J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, FACC, FAHA
J. Brent Muhlestein

Consuming 80 chicken nuggets, 182 bacon strips or 73.5 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes or less may seem like a daunting task, but for individuals who participate in competitive eating competitions, the challenge is a piece of cake.

Each year, dozens of professional competitive speed eaters compete in more than 50 sanctioned events for a chance to win hundreds of thousands of dollars, and every summer is highlighted by the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The contest, held on Coney Island, routinely draws more than 30,000 visitors and an additional 1 million or more viewers who watch the event on one of ESPN’s networks.

But with all the glory associated with winning a competition, the question remains: what are the inherent risks of partaking in these events and regularly binge eating?

Major League Eating — the governing body that oversees all sanctioned professional eating contests — did not return a request for comment, but the organization’s website has a safety standards section that suggests that competitive speed eating should take place, “only in a controlled environment with appropriate rules and with an emergency medical technician present.”

Acute health risks

Although the league does not address the possible health ramifications associated with participating in competitive eating competitions, there are multiple acute risks that could occur, according to David C. Metz, MD, associate chief for clinical affairs in the gastroenterology division at Penn Medicine and co-author of a study on competitive speed eating published in American Journal of Roentgenology.

“The acute risks are risks that can happen during the actual event and can be very serious. ... We always say to people to be careful and don’t try this at home,” Metz told Healio.com. “It sounds fun, but it might be very dangerous. An individual’s airway could become obstructed, which could lead to hypoxia and death. There’s also the risk of aspiration into the lungs, which could lead to pneumonia and then there’s the risk of rupturing the esophagus or the stomach if you just overeat so much, so it’s not necessarily safe.”

Competing in competitions could also be dangerous for the heart, according to J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, FACC, FAHA, co-director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute.

“There have been specific reports of heart attacks and strokes occurring as a result of the stress of competitive eating,” he said. “The stress of the activity can induce acute surges of adrenaline that can hurt the heart.”

Abdullah Shatnawei, MD
Abdullah Shatnawei

Dangers of training

“I think we have to distinguish between normal people and competitors, because these athletes actually [train to compete] over [many] years,” Abdullah Shatnawei, MD, medical director of the center for gut rehabilitation and transplantation at Cleveland Clinic, told Healio.com.

When the average person ingests a significant amount of food, the stomach sends a signal to the brain to stop eating, Shatnawei said.

Competitors slowly train their stomachs to contain large amounts of food to phase away that signal from the brain by drinking unusually high amounts of fluids. This practice, Shatnawei said, could lead to serious health risks.

“Drinking a lot of water can affect the electrolyte balance in the blood and that can sometimes lead to serious health consequences,” he said. “If sodium goes down, depending on how fast this occurs, people may feel confused and have seizures, [which may cause] some people [to] develop arrhythmia in the heart..”

Long-term risks

Susan Ryskamp, RDN

Susan Ryskamp

The human body is not designed to repeatedly intake large quantities of food in one sitting, Susan Ryskamp, RDN, a clinical dietitian in the Frankel Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan, told Healio.com.

“On a daily basis, we’re looking at an average of around 2,000 calories a day and ideally that would be distributed over the day, because our bodies are made for energy,” she said. “Unlike a car where you just gas up and go, we work more efficiently on all levels — brain function, mood, and sleep — when we eat breakfast within 2-waking hours and eat something every 3 hours. That’s good for glucose control and keeps metabolism right where we want it to be.”

Although competitive eating and the long-term effects associated with competing have not been widely studied, there are many serious possible health risks that could occur later in life in someone who is a competitor.

Consider how the stomach normally operates, Shatnawei said. “The stomach maintains food for a long time and then releases food slowly over time,” he said. “Assuming the release of [stored] food [in a competitive eater] is at normal pace or just a little delayed, the person [might] overwhelm their metabolism with thousands of calories that they don’t need and that could theoretically lead to the accumulation of unnecessary nutrients in the form of stored fat. That could lead to weight gain.”

The potential for excessive weight gain long-term in competitors could lead to morbid obesity that could cause heart disease, according to Muhlestein.

Further, although this theory has not been studied, both Metz and Shatnawei consider it possible that competitors could develop gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach.

“The stomach of [a] trained competitor becomes like a sack that can harbor a lot of food and that would affect, in the long term, the ability of the stomach to contract and handle food ... and in the long term, people may become symptomatic with nausea and vomiting, [and they] may develop diabetes and become obese,” Shatnawei said. – by Ryan McDonald

Disclosures: There are no reported relevant financial disclosures.

 

J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, FACC, FAHA
J. Brent Muhlestein

Consuming 80 chicken nuggets, 182 bacon strips or 73.5 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes or less may seem like a daunting task, but for individuals who participate in competitive eating competitions, the challenge is a piece of cake.

Each year, dozens of professional competitive speed eaters compete in more than 50 sanctioned events for a chance to win hundreds of thousands of dollars, and every summer is highlighted by the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The contest, held on Coney Island, routinely draws more than 30,000 visitors and an additional 1 million or more viewers who watch the event on one of ESPN’s networks.

But with all the glory associated with winning a competition, the question remains: what are the inherent risks of partaking in these events and regularly binge eating?

Major League Eating — the governing body that oversees all sanctioned professional eating contests — did not return a request for comment, but the organization’s website has a safety standards section that suggests that competitive speed eating should take place, “only in a controlled environment with appropriate rules and with an emergency medical technician present.”

Acute health risks

Although the league does not address the possible health ramifications associated with participating in competitive eating competitions, there are multiple acute risks that could occur, according to David C. Metz, MD, associate chief for clinical affairs in the gastroenterology division at Penn Medicine and co-author of a study on competitive speed eating published in American Journal of Roentgenology.

“The acute risks are risks that can happen during the actual event and can be very serious. ... We always say to people to be careful and don’t try this at home,” Metz told Healio.com. “It sounds fun, but it might be very dangerous. An individual’s airway could become obstructed, which could lead to hypoxia and death. There’s also the risk of aspiration into the lungs, which could lead to pneumonia and then there’s the risk of rupturing the esophagus or the stomach if you just overeat so much, so it’s not necessarily safe.”

Competing in competitions could also be dangerous for the heart, according to J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, FACC, FAHA, co-director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute.

“There have been specific reports of heart attacks and strokes occurring as a result of the stress of competitive eating,” he said. “The stress of the activity can induce acute surges of adrenaline that can hurt the heart.”

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Abdullah Shatnawei, MD
Abdullah Shatnawei

Dangers of training

“I think we have to distinguish between normal people and competitors, because these athletes actually [train to compete] over [many] years,” Abdullah Shatnawei, MD, medical director of the center for gut rehabilitation and transplantation at Cleveland Clinic, told Healio.com.

When the average person ingests a significant amount of food, the stomach sends a signal to the brain to stop eating, Shatnawei said.

Competitors slowly train their stomachs to contain large amounts of food to phase away that signal from the brain by drinking unusually high amounts of fluids. This practice, Shatnawei said, could lead to serious health risks.

“Drinking a lot of water can affect the electrolyte balance in the blood and that can sometimes lead to serious health consequences,” he said. “If sodium goes down, depending on how fast this occurs, people may feel confused and have seizures, [which may cause] some people [to] develop arrhythmia in the heart..”

Long-term risks

Susan Ryskamp, RDN

Susan Ryskamp

The human body is not designed to repeatedly intake large quantities of food in one sitting, Susan Ryskamp, RDN, a clinical dietitian in the Frankel Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan, told Healio.com.

“On a daily basis, we’re looking at an average of around 2,000 calories a day and ideally that would be distributed over the day, because our bodies are made for energy,” she said. “Unlike a car where you just gas up and go, we work more efficiently on all levels — brain function, mood, and sleep — when we eat breakfast within 2-waking hours and eat something every 3 hours. That’s good for glucose control and keeps metabolism right where we want it to be.”

Although competitive eating and the long-term effects associated with competing have not been widely studied, there are many serious possible health risks that could occur later in life in someone who is a competitor.

Consider how the stomach normally operates, Shatnawei said. “The stomach maintains food for a long time and then releases food slowly over time,” he said. “Assuming the release of [stored] food [in a competitive eater] is at normal pace or just a little delayed, the person [might] overwhelm their metabolism with thousands of calories that they don’t need and that could theoretically lead to the accumulation of unnecessary nutrients in the form of stored fat. That could lead to weight gain.”

The potential for excessive weight gain long-term in competitors could lead to morbid obesity that could cause heart disease, according to Muhlestein.

Further, although this theory has not been studied, both Metz and Shatnawei consider it possible that competitors could develop gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach.

“The stomach of [a] trained competitor becomes like a sack that can harbor a lot of food and that would affect, in the long term, the ability of the stomach to contract and handle food ... and in the long term, people may become symptomatic with nausea and vomiting, [and they] may develop diabetes and become obese,” Shatnawei said. – by Ryan McDonald

Disclosures: There are no reported relevant financial disclosures.