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Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?

As eating contests become more popular, some experts are concerned about the risks.

Secrets of Competitive Eating continued...

At 6 feet 1 inch tall, the large-framed Chestnut weighs about 220 pounds, though he came in at 207 before this year's hot dog contest. "I control my calorie intake pretty rigorously," he says, and he also runs to keep his weight down.

How does Chestnut win eating contests? Like most competitive eaters, Chestnut drinks lots of water during the contest and dunks his food in water, which he believes helps the food settle at the bottom of his stomach. He moves around as he eats, which also helps the food settle. And he also attributes his success to good pacing.

Think competitive eating is just mindless gluttony? Don't tell Hall Hunt, a 25-year-old structural engineer currently ranked ninth in the world. Known for his "academic approach" to eating, Hunt tells WebMD that he carefully studies each food to maximize edibility. He studies food density to "maximize the amount of food that can go down with each contraction of the esophagus." And he studies which liquids are best at breaking down which foods. (Want to cut through the grease on those cheese fries, for example? Try lemonade.)

To keep his weight manageable, Hunt practices mostly by loading up on veggies. If he practiced only on high-calorie foods, he says, "I'd weigh 400 pounds." Actually, he weighs 175 pounds and is 6 feet 1 inch tall.

"My favorite things to do are eat, travel, and compete," Hunt says. "This sport combines all of those things."

Are Eating Contests Dangerous?

Top competitive eaters may train intensively, but that all goes on behind the scenes. What the average fan sees is a bunch of competitors getting egged on as they stuff their faces with food. And that's why the growth of competitive eating as a sport worries many dietitians.

"Knowing how many people don't have adequate nutrition, and how many people abuse food and overeat constantly, seeing competitive eating celebrated on TV disturbs me," nutritionist Milton Stokes tells WebMD.

Stokes, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, says competitive eating can "send a message to spectators that going hog wild with food is not a big deal."

Doctors also worry that competitive eating can be downright dangerous. For example, binge eating could cause stomach perforations in people with undiagnosed ulcers, says Shanthi Sitaraman, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

For those competitive eaters who train by gulping huge quantities of water, water intoxication is also a concern. Water intoxication is a deadly syndrome that results from dilution of electrolytes in the blood. But Sitaraman says water intoxication is rarely a risk in people who are not already losing electrolytes, for example through long-distance running.

If competitors are vomiting regularly, that could cause problems, Sitaraman says. Protracted vomiting can increase the chances of aspiration, or food getting into the lungs rather than the esophagus. This can lead to deadly pneumonia. But competitive eaters say vomiting at competitions is rare.

Sitaraman was surprised when, doing a search of the medical literature of the past several years, she found no reported complications from competitive eating, short of a single case of a jaw fracture. "Maybe [competitive eaters'] gastrointestinal tract has adapted and acclimatized to eat those calories," she speculates.

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