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Competitive Eating: How Safe Is It?

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

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.

Metz studied how Janus's stomach handled huge amounts of food. In normal individuals, he tells WebMD, a full stomach sends a message via the vagus nerve to the brain, which then orders the stomach to contract and send food into the small intestine. Competitive eaters somehow block that signal even as their stomach stretches to enormous proportions. Otherwise, their digestion processes appear normal, he says.

Metz suspects that competitive eaters may have some natural ability to stretch their stomachs and may also be able to train the muscles in the stomach wall. To know more, he says, he'll have to study an eater over the course of a career. But Metz does know enough to be concerned about some potential long-term effects of competitive eating. "If you don't get that stretched feeling, that full feeling, and you don't tell your brain to switch off, then you're at risk of obesity," he says.

Another serious risk, Metz says, is gastroparesis, or stomach paralysis. If the stomach muscles are repeatedly overstretched, they may ultimately fail to contract, and the stomach will lose its ability to empty itself. Usually associated with diabetes, gastroparesis can cause chronic indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. It has no effective cure, Metz says.

Metz is impressed with top eaters' discipline and natural abilities. But for the general public, he has a message: "People shouldn't try this at home."

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Reviewed on August 22, 2007

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