Playin' with your food like it's some kind of game

Longtime readers (and really, that's the only audience, at this point) are well aware of my fascination with competitive eating. Beyond the awful, mesmerizing spectacle, there's the physiological aspect -- how can some people shovel so much into their gut, so fast?

At one point, I was actually thinking of making this into a research project. I spoke with a few contestants, and like to think my frequent phone calls to IFOCE chair George Shea in 2006 led to him bill that year's Nathan's Hot Dog Contest as, "The Mount Sinai of Mastication" -- but then again, he also dubbed it the Madison Square Garden of Gorging, and finally, the battleground where God and Lucifer fight for men's souls (such gifted hyperbole cannot be ascribed to any single influence).

But I digress. Since first blogging about the topic in 2004, offering some speculation on how elite eaters succeed in 2005, and calling for more research two years ago, well, I neglected to keep up with this topic. Even as a new champion was crowned, I overlooked this important addition to the body of evidence:

Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences
Marc S. Levine, Geoffrey Spencer, Abass Alavi and David C. Metz

OBJECTIVE. The purpose of our investigation was to assess the stomachs of a world-class speed-eating champion and of a control subject during a speed-eating test in our gastrointestinal fluoroscopy suite to determine how competitive speed eaters are able to eat so much so fast.

CONCLUSION. Our observations suggest that successful speed eaters expand the stomach to form an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food. We speculate that professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy. Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior.

Not Totally Rad's got a nice discussion of the paper, as well as some personal perspective:

After a few preliminary tests, these two subjects were asked to eat as many hot dogs as they could. The big burly dude ate 7 before feeling uncomfortably full. The champion eater then proceeded to down 2 dogs at a time for the next 10 minutes. After he ate 36 hotdogs, the investigators terminated the experiment.

Despite the speed eater’s insistence that he felt no sensation of satiety, fullness, bloating, or abdominal discomfort, we became concerned that further dilation of his already enormous stomach could be associated with a small theoretic risk of gastric perforation. Therefore, a decision was made to terminate the speed-eating test over the objections of our participant.

While all of this was going on, the radiologists asked the eaters to also ingest a barium sulfate solution so they could watch the stomach under fluoroscopy. The control dude's stomach showed a large mass of partially chewed hotdog bits, but only minimal gastric dilatation. The eating champion looked a bit different:

His stomach now appeared as a massively distended, food-filled sac occupying most of the upper abdomen, with little or no gastric peristalsis and emptying of a small amount of barium into the duodenum.

It's hard to generalize these findings to all eaters everywhere when one only has 2 subjects in one's experiment. However, the investigators concluded:

Our observations suggest that successful speed eaters expand the stomach to form an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food.

Having seen the competitors up close, I still think there's something more at work, at least when you compare Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut to second-tier hot dog eaters like Tim Janus and Cookie Jarvis. Everyone seems to eat 3-5 or so hot dogs per minute in the first minute or two, but while the others visibly slow down, Chestnut and Kobayashi can keep up the pace throughout the 12-minute race. I think this happens too soon to be mediated by gastric dilatation. Rather, what separates the new champs from lesser eaters is an ability to relax and really open the gullet. I found an old WaPo article that discusses this:

Stanford's Triadafilopoulos has another theory. When the muscles that line the esophagus initiate swallowing, they alternately relax and contract in a rippling pattern that pushes food downward. It typically takes 9 to 15 seconds for a swallow to convey food to the stomach, he said. This makes the esophagus the real bottleneck in competitive speed eating, with a mouth full of food waiting for traffic to clear in the tunnel.

Some people can relax all those muscles at once, momentarily turning the esophagus into a hollow pipe. "That's how people in circuses can swallow swords," Triadafilopoulos said. Some eaters may do the same thing, and literally pour food down the hatch.

"These people have somehow developed the ability, probably through some kind of training, to relax everything at the same time," he conjectured.

Metz doesn't buy that idea...

Metz, it should be noted, is one of the study authors cited above. I'd like his next fluoroscopy study to include a look at swallowing, and compare hot dog champions who can eat 50+ dogs in 12 minutes to those that top off around 30.

And my original questions to George Shea remain unanswered: What is the IFOCE's stand on performance enhancing substances (like glucagon, or even just topical anesthetics). What if a gastric bypass patient wanted to compete -- would that be fair? If Shea is looking to legitimize and mainstream this activity, he may have to answer these questions. But my hunch, as years go by and disturbing evidence begins to accumulate, is that IFOCE will remain the stuff of traveling sideshows.