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Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?

As eating contests become more popular, some experts are concerned about the risks.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 obesity is growing to epidemic proportions.

Secrets of Competitive Eating

Chestnut, 23, a project engineer from San Jose, Calif., says his success results from intensive training. "I slowly make my body adapt to my goal," he says, comparing himself to a bodybuilder or a marathoner.

Chestnut trains about once a week, eating mass quantities of whatever food he's expected to consume for the next eating contest. What kinds of foods? The list includes hamburgers, hot wings, oysters, deep-fried asparagus, key lime pie, chicken wings, cheesecake, and lobster.

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