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Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?

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

What Does Competitive Eating Do to the Body?

Competitive eating is a little-studied phenomenon. So David Metz, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was thrilled when competitive eater Tim Janus offered himself as a guinea pig for study. Metz hopes that by studying people who seem to never get full, he can have a better understanding of the opposite phenomenon -- indigestion.

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