Is a competitive eating contest a freak show of gluttony or a weirdly fascinating sport worthy of ESPN coverage? Do participants have stomachs of steel? High-speed digestive systems? Super-sized stomach capacities? Or a screw loose?
Nowadays, this bizarre "sport" has a league of its own, known as "Major League Eating," an international ranking of its top competitors, and it appears to have inspired the reality TV show, "Man Versus Food."
In the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, this year's men's winner polished off a jaw-dropping 62 franks and buns during the 10-minute gorgefest, capturing $10,000 in prize money. A first-ever women's champion wolfed down 40 weiners.
But recently, Taiwan has gotten fed up with these offbeat speed-eating competitions. A government watchdog group has called for curbs on these popular contests.
"The frequent 'big-stomach' contests not only endanger health but violate the principle of fairness as the contestants who get sick are using the national health insurance resources," said the group, in a statement.
They issued a report urging government agencies not to sponsor or host eating contests and have recommended that contest organizers pay any medical bills from illnesses caused by participating in them -- instead of Taiwan's national health insurance. In 2008, a graduate student in the country choked to death during a steamed-bun eating contest.
So, what are the health consequences of participating in these food face-offs, which may feature anything from chilies and oysters to pies and chicken wings?
There's been only one small study attempting to find this out. Using various imaging tests, researchers compared the stomach of a top-ranked competitive eater to a male who was not a "gustatory athlete" but had a hearty appetite.
They analyzed both men before and after a 12-minute hot dog eating contest.
The tests revealed that "the stomach [of the competitive eater] adapted by becoming an increasingly compliant sac that could expand to enormous sizes to accommodate the large volume of ingested food," says Marc Levine, MD, a professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Presumably, this increased capacity is what allows speed eaters to consume so much food in such a short period of time, he explains.
Although the guy with the hearty appetite called it quits after seven hot dogs, saying he'd be sick if he continued, the competitive eater put away 36 franks in 10 minutes. Researchers made him stop as they observed his massively bulging belly and were afraid it might rupture.
"I did not expect the speed eater's stomach to be able to distend to such a remarkable degree, filling most of his abdomen," admits Levine, the study's lead author.
And yet, the speed eater insisted he didn't feel stuffed, bloated, or uncomfortable.
Although only one competitive eater was studied, Levine worries that because participants learn to overcome their "satiety reflex," they can essentially eat as much food as they want without experiencing a sense of fullness. As they get older and possibly lose their willpower, he says, this could result in binge eating and obesity.
"There's no real documentation of the risks and dangers associated with this sport," says Levine.
Readers, have you ever competed in an eating contest? Do you find the "sport" disgusting or entertaining?
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