Hot Dog Havoc: Health Risks of Competitive Eating

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Bursting at the Seams

The average stomach can hold between two and four liters of food. But when you're talking about scarfing down a pile of 50 hotdogs in a single sitting, it's clear that for most of us, something has got to give.

When someone eats this many hot dogs, the stomach expands like a balloon. In a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, Dr. Marc Levine and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine sought to see what happened to the stomachs of competitive eaters during a speed-eating contest. To accomplish this, they X-rayed the stomachs of a competitive eater and a normal person as they both ate hot dogs in order to see how their stomachs handled all that food.

What they found was that competitive eaters' stomachs appear to be able to expand more than those of average people. "Our observations suggest that successful speed eaters expand the stomach to form an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food," the authors wrote in the study.

But that rare talent could come at a cost.

"We speculate that professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy [surgical removal of part or all of the stomach]," the authors wrote. "Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior."

More Than a Grain of Salt

After the competition the competitors are completely out of breath and can barely stand up. Sure, it could be because they've just downed an enormous pile of hot dogs. But it is also likely because of how much sodium they've ingested.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from salt added to food. The majority of salt consumption comes from restaurant food and processed foods.

"Forty (hot dogs) will have 24,000 mg of sodium -- about 10 times what is recommended for a person," Ayoob said. "That creates a huge burden for the kidneys and the heart.

"A healthy person might be able to handle this but it's a dangerous game. Someone prone to high blood pressure is really rolling the dice and could easily end up in the hospital."

Consuming too much sodium can have detrimental effects on the body. The surplus of high sodium levels in the blood causes an electrolyte imbalance called hypernatremia -- literally, too much sodium in the body.

The Perils of Competitive Eating

While a hot dog eating contest may look like fun and games, there have been victims to the competitive eating craze in America. Mort Hurst, a North Carolina Native and a Guinness Book of World Record holder for eating the most moon pies, suffered a stroke in 1991 after eating 38 soft-boiled eggs in 29 seconds. On a somewhat related note, in 2007 a woman died of apparent "water intoxication" during a radio contest in which she drank 2 liters of water to win a Nintendo Wii for her children.

Ayoob said that because of the dangers, the American tradition of eating competitions needs a makeover.

"Eating is supposed to be about a combination of enjoyment and nourishment together, not dodging bullets," he said. "Enjoying a hot dog on the 4th is one thing. There's no prize worth eating 50 of them. Ever."

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