What competitive eating does to the body

TOn Fourth of July, participants in Nathan’s Famous’ hot dog eating contest could scarf down 76 sausages in the time it takes to read this article. Like ultramarathoners running 50 miles or football players shrugging off heavy blows, speed eating requires natural resilience, dedicated training, and serious health risks.

Some see the annual contest in Coney Island, N.Y., as an act of defiance, capturing the spirit of Christmas. When the British taxed our sugar, we were fighting for independence. When modern doctors tell us to cut back on carbs that quickly turn to blood sugar, we gobble up as many as we can on ESPN and walk away seemingly unscathed.

But this stomach upset can be harmful to the body, both during the competition and in the long term.

A dangerous journey through the body


Competitors usually fast before the event, says Miki Sudo, the most successful female champion in the history of the sport with nine Nathan’s titles in the women’s division. “You want the stomach to be empty and hungry” on competition day, she says.

After a rousing national anthem, a horn signals the participants to eat as many hot dogs as possible in a lighthearted 10 minutes. Thus begins a blur of chewing and swallowing with a physicality that is half shark, half snake. According to the ESPN documentary series 30 for 30train participants to strengthen their jaws so they can tear food apart with the efficiency of a tusk and to unlearn their gag reflex so they can no longer swallow large chunks that would make the rest of humanity gag.


Just five seconds into this self-proclaimed “Super Bowl of competitive eating,” chunks of hot dog enter the esophagus, the tube that leads to the stomach. However, because they aren’t chewed enough, chunks can lodge in the airway, potentially causing choking. Paramedics are on hand to help, but in all speed eating contests, choking is the biggest risk, and can result in death.

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As hot dogs build up in the body, the risks increase. The stomach can’t process the food as quickly as it comes in, so it backs up in the lower esophagus. This traffic jam can cause the food to come back up with force, potentially leading to choking, esophageal tears and surgery to repair them, says Dr. David Metz, a retired professor of gastroenterology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the effects of eating quickly.


In just two minutes, some participants may have stuffed as many as ten hot dogs into their stomachs. To handle this barrage, the stomach begins to expand. Normally, our stomachs expand like a balloon, building pressure as the meal progresses—and this pressure triggers a message to the brain that we’re full. But speed eaters have been trained to increase the elasticity of their stomachs with increasing amounts of food, so that they stretch more like spider silk. Without the same pressure buildup, their brains don’t get the “drop your hot dog” message—just the roar of the crowd to keep gorging.

Small intestine

Seven minutes into the contest, a few groundbreaking chunks of hot dog have already raced through the stomach to explore the small intestine, an organ dedicated to further digesting food and absorbing nutrients. This vital task, however, can be sabotaged when a whopping 22,800 calories are processed in a single meal.

One problem is that far too much glucose—the broken-down form of all those hot dogs, especially their buns—could end up in the small intestine, Metz explains. The influx would send the body into panic mode, as it tries to prevent organ damage. This stress response, known as “dumping syndrome,” involves heavy sweating, a rapid heart rate, nausea and diarrhea.

More research is needed on dumping syndrome, Metz says. For his study, Metz took X-rays of a speed eater in action and found that fast eating was made possible by a “remarkable” stomach expansion, not by quickly dumping food into the small intestine to make room for more. This suggests that dumping syndrome may not pose a risk, although some competitive eaters report symptoms of the syndrome, such as profuse sweating.

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Another problem: Many hot dog chunks remain largely undigested, even after they pass through the stomach, says Kathleen Melanson, a professor of nutrition and director of the Energy Balance Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island. These chunks can be fermented by bacteria in the small intestine, leading to bacterial overgrowth, Melanson says, which can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea, among other symptoms.

Examples of debilitating symptoms, such as severe pain requiring a five-day hospital stay, have been documented, but rarely. “That doesn’t mean more hasn’t happened,” Metz says. And that doesn’t help: The feast can linger in the digestive tract for several days before it’s finally excreted.

Destined to be devoured

Thinking you can eat dozens of hot dogs because you saw it on TV is like trying to climb El Capitan without ropes because you saw it on TV. Free Solo“No one at home should try this,” Metz says.

Professional gluttons gradually increase their food intake over longer periods. (They don’t exercise by drinking water, which can cause brain swelling.) “There’s clearly a training effect,” says James Smoliga, a sports medicine researcher at Tufts University. He’s found that elite competitive eaters reliably improve their performance with years of practice, so that their gobbling rates resemble those of grizzly bears.

The improvement likely builds on physiologies uniquely suited to fast eating, Smoliga says. Sudo thinks she’s always had a “natural elasticity of the stomach,” and Melanson notes that twin studies suggest that some people are biologically more likely to eat faster than others. This innate “talent” could offer some protection against the dangers.

Unknown long-term damage

Far from being overweight, many speed eaters appear healthy. “They’re physical specimens,” Metz says. “I haven’t had any physical side effects from doing this,” other than some discomfort and sweating immediately afterward, says Nick Wehry, a competitive eater ranked fourth in the world (and Sudo’s husband). “A lot of us have a love of fitness,” Sudo says—a passion fueled by a desire to reduce the risks of competitive eating, she adds.

Whether this strategy will result in healthy aging remains to be seen, since the “sport” (and the study of it) is relatively new. (Major League Eating, the body that oversees professional competitions including Nathan’s, did not respond to a request for comment about whether it tracks the long-term effects of competitive eating.)

One long-term concern is that their stomachs will be permanently expanded, meaning they’ll never feel full again, no matter how much they eat. “We don’t know if or how you can train it back after you’re done with the competition,” Melanson says. To avoid obesity, former competitors could simply remind themselves to stop eating, not relying on their stomachs’ cues. But this is “challenging and takes practice,” explains Melanson, who studies people who try to slow down their eating, which can help with weight loss and overall health.

According to recent documentary, eating champion Takeru Kobayashi may have turned off his stomach’s signals after decades of competition Hack your health“I overeat because I’m a competitive eater,” he says in the film. “When you overeat, you don’t taste the flavors or fully enjoy the smells of the food. You ignore your body’s signals, like fullness.”

However, Sudo and Wehry say that after many years of competing, they still have normal appetites.

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A permanently stretched stomach can also lead to gastroparesis, where the stomach takes too long to empty, resulting in chronic nausea, pain, and vomiting.

Tim Janus, a 47-year-old former competitive eater who Metz has studied in scientific research, retired from the sport in 2016 after 11 years “out of an abundance of caution,” based in part on Metz’s findings about the risks. He also worried about the harm of throwing up after a race, a practice he describes as widespread. “When you eat so much, you can’t digest it all,” he says. “Your stomach is too full to process things. Throwing up after a race is a necessary part of the sport.”

Janus tried to work with other pro-eaters to share and track their health to better understand the effects of competition, but he couldn’t get them interested. He’s now a Foreign Service Officer in Mexico City and is healthy. Most of his former competitors also say they’re healthy, but he “didn’t want to continue and realized I made a mistake.”

Speed ​​eaters can develop other diseases linked to unhealthy diets, such as heart disease and diabetes. The American Medical Association has recognized speed eating as an unhealthy habit. But Sudo and Wehry are lean and muscular. Their weight spikes during competitions, but they eat less than usual afterward to restore their health. (Another reason to fast before or after: Belly fat can block the stomach from expanding, some competitive eaters have found.) Wehry says he loses about 20 pounds in just a few days after competitions. They say they avoid vomiting food after competitions. The same is true of many other professional competitors.

Outside of competition, Sudo and Wehry exercise daily and eat nutritiously. Wehry estimates that 70 percent of his calories per year are highly nutritious; training and competition account for only 30 percent. His blood pressure is slightly elevated, but his cholesterol has improved since he started competing, he says. Sudo’s doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She gave birth without complications at age 35. Even with the competitions, “we still have a healthier lifestyle than 95 percent of the population,” says Wehry, a former competitive bodybuilder.

Another speed-eating couple, Rich and Carlene LeFevre, are role models for longevity. After competing since the mid-1980s, the LeFevres have reached old age in good health, Sudo says. (Rich is 80.)

Can these speed demons eat their 9.25 cakes in eight minutes and still be healthy? Perhaps with the right genetics and behavioral strategies, Melanson says. “You can’t assume it’s going to work for the general population.” Research suggests that other extreme competitors, ultramarathoners, are doing better than some scientists expected, with many living into their mid-80s, Smoliga notes.

In addition to her training as a dental hygienist, Sudo likes to eat fast for the thrill of competition and “putting on a good show.” At the same time, she and Wehry want to live long enough to see their son grow up and meet their grandchildren. “I’m going to do everything I can to stay around for a while,” Sudo says.

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