Hot Dog Havoc: Health Risks of Competitive Eating

The celebrated July 4 tradition may encourage risky eating behaviors.

July 03, 2012, 1:25 PM

July 4, 2012— -- The crowd is roaring, your pulse is racing, and all that stands between you and the coveted Mustard Belt are five dozen hot dogs and 20 other hungry contestants.

Such is the challenge that lies before the competitive eaters at Coney Island for the 97th annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition this afternoon. But while they may be focused on the hotdogs that lay before them, some health experts say they should focus as well on the health hazards of their absurd hobby.

This year, they will be putting their bodies on the line as they strive to beat Takeru Kobayashi's current, unofficial world record of 69 hotdogs in 10 minutes, which he set last July 4. It's a physical feat that can leave a competitor weighing 15 pounds more than when he or she starts eating.

Below, we take a look at the various ways competitive eating can be an assault on your body. Considering the health effects of the calories, cholesterol, sodium -- not to mention the sheer volume of food -- with which these competitors engorge themselves, it is easy to see that this is not an activity for the weak of stomach.

In other words, please don't try this at home.

Calorie Overload

To some people, calories are counted in the dozens and hundreds throughout the day. But in the heat of competition, the number of calories these "freak-of-nature" contestants will ingest will be an order of magnitude higher than that of the average diner.

Consider this: one Nathan's hotdog, bun included, is 309 calories, according to the hot dog giant's website. If a competitor manages to tie Kobayashi, they will have put away 21,321 calories.

By comparison, the USDA dictates that the average male should eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, and the average woman should eat between 1,800 and 2,300 calories. Do the math, and you will see that in 10 minutes, the contestants will possibly consume more calories than a normal human being would in two weeks.

50-Hot Dog Meal: A Big Fat Deal

The Coney Island competitors could end up eating 1,380 grams of fat during their 10-minute feeding frenzy. Just thinking about chowing down that much fat might make you feel a little queasy -- but doing this regularly may raise your chances of developing a serious chronic health condition in the years to come.

And then there is the cholesterol. According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, the average human being should eat less than 200mg of cholesterol a day. If you were to tie the 69-hot dog record yourself, your cholesterol intake would be a whopping 2,436mg.

"I'm not sure if eating that many hot dogs can damage your blood, but it will probably raise your cholesterol level temporarily," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "And it puts a strain on your body's organs to handle that amount of calories, fat, and sodium all at once."

The average human would have to average 180mg of cholesterol a day for two weeks in order to reach what Kobayashi did in 10 minutes.

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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