November 29, 2005

Down the Hatch, Then What?

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Set Aside the Question of Why Competitive Eaters Do What They Do. Some Want to Know How
By Ben Harder
The Washington Post


Ian Hickman, a recent University of Kentucky graduate, quit his job as a clothing store manager and relocated to Sterling last month so he could be closer to the action. Hickman, 22, plans to compete for cash and fame by bolting Buffalo wings, hot dogs, watermelon and other manner of victuals.

"I just want to eat food, and impress my friends, and win money," said the six-foot-tall 165-pounder. In the first three months of competition, he figures he has won a little over $1,000. Some medical specialists believe there is something in it for them, too. They say they can learn fundamental facts about gastrointestinal physiology from people who can, as Hickman once did, eat nine pounds of watermelon in 15 minutes.

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"I would love to study them," said gastroenterologist George Triadafilopoulos, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He said studying competitive eating would help researchers "understand the mechanisms [of swallowing and satiety] and treat people in whom the mechanisms are not working."

Which is not to say they recommend anybody do it. Speed-eating has plenty of unpleasant side effects, among them vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea and painful gas, experts say. Not to mention choking, stomach rupture and esophageal inflammation. Frequent vomiting can splash teeth with stomach acid, eroding enamel. Swallowed bones can injure intestines; inhaled food can get trapped in airways. Then there is the issue of regularly eating far too many calories to maintain a healthy weight.

"These competitions go against everything that we've learned" about healthy eating, said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a dietitian based in Woodmere, N.Y., and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.

Arnie Chapman of Oceanside, N.Y., who is head of the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, one of two main groups that organize and promote speed-eating events in the United States, acknowledges that in his events, well, vomiting happens. But he doesn't see that as a big problem.

"Vomiting is a healthy way [for the body] to say you've gone over your limit," he said.

Chapman said he knows of two fatalities in the past three decades that resulted from competitive eating. Both involved choking. One occurred in a bar.

"Contests at bars, where people are drinking, may not be such a good idea," he said. An emergency medical technician is always on the premises at events organized by the two eaters' associations, he said. But that's not the case at contests put on by individual bars and restaurants.

The Sweet Science

It appears that competitive eating has evaded serious scientific scrutiny. Several searches of a database of medical literature produced no leads. Experts interviewed for this story knew of no academic research on the topic. According to records kept by the National Institutes of Health, no researcher has ever applied for a federal grant to study competitive eaters. Even Google didn't toss up a crumb.

David C. Metz, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania and spokesman for the American Gastroenterological Association, suspects that studying speed eaters could lead to breakthroughs in treating dyspepsia -- pain and bloating some people suffer after eating a modest meal. Something in those patients triggers the stomach to send a discomfort signal to the brain prematurely, Metz said. Competitive eaters seem able to suppress the distress signal, he said, and learning their secret may lead to better treatments for dyspepsia.

Metz is particularly interested in a phenomenon known as "receptive relaxation" of the stomach. "As the organ fills with food," Metz said, its muscles relax in response, "enabling it to swell." Compared with other people's stomachs, speed eaters' presumably "can tolerate a higher degree of tension before they get uncomfortable."

Many sport eaters say they train their stomachs to expand -- guzzling large volumes of water or chowing down low-calorie foods, such as cabbage, in the weeks leading up to an event. Don Lerman, 56, of Levittown, N.Y., chugs a gallon of liquid, sometimes daily, in the weeks before a contest.

But no matter how much they train, at some point all eaters hit their limits.

"'The Wall' is where you don't want to put any more in your mouth," said Ian Hickman. "Your body signals to your brain that you're full."

To get better, Lerman occasionally employs an extended regimen. First he'll fill up on liquids. Then "I'll practice eating hot dogs when I'm full. The contest is going to be won not by someone who's hungry but by someone who's able to eat when they're full."

Lerman's tactics seem to work. He once consumed seven quarter-pound sticks of butter ("like eating axle grease") in five minutes. On another occasion, he ingested 120 jalapeno peppers in 15 minutes. But that's not all.

"At the Glutton Bowl, I consumed over seven pounds of cow brains," he said. He placed third.

Small is Better

Last December, Lerman's 5-foot-7-inch frame carried 142 pounds. Then he broke his foot in a fall and had to wear a boot cast for most of a year. He stopped exercising. "I gained a hundred pounds in three months," he said.

"If you're going to a lot of contests, you better do a lot of exercise or diet in between," said Lerman, who's been eating competitively since 2000. "Otherwise, you're going to get as big as a house." Concerned about his weight, he decided this month to take a sabbatical from competitive eating.

Some eaters believe that carrying excess weight works against them. Reigning national champion Sonya Thomas, a 5-foot-5 Alexandria resident, weighs just 98 pounds. The top dog worldwide, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, also cuts a slender profile.

And while many people who are drawn to compete are overweight, "the thinnest people are the best on the circuit," said Ryan Nerz of New York, who officiates at eating events and is writing a book about competitive eating.

"About eight out of the top 10 are svelte, athletic," said an eater who goes by the name "Crazy Legs" Conti, who stands 6-foot-3, weighs 210 pounds, and runs marathons. Thomas beat him handily last month at a Buffalo wing contest in Bethesda.

He and others buy into what they call the belt-of-fat theory, which supposes that abdominal fat inhibits the stomach from ballooning. "A thinner person has much more room for expansion. An eater like myself, unfortunately, is struggling to catch up," Conti said.

Metz, the gastroenterologist, considers the belt-of-fat theory plausible but unproven.

Contest organizer and occasional competitor Arnie Chapman, 44, is also on the fence about the theory. A former marathoner himself, he thinks competitiveness and disciplined training are the main ingredients of speed-eating success. Nevertheless, he said, "there are some advantages" -- like having a muted vomiting reflex -- "that are just God-given."

A Lot to Swallow

Some events aren't about stomach size, eaters say, but about speed. Devouring chicken wings, for example, demands more of contestants' manual dexterity and mandible speed than of their maximum capacity.

After scarfing down 5 pounds of wings in 10 minutes to win the recent contest in Bethesda, Thomas said she wasn't even full. Other contestants also said the sprint ended before they could push the envelope.

The challenge with wings, said Hickman, is stripping meat from the bones and processing it rapidly without consuming a dangerously large piece of flesh--or worse. "You have to be careful not to swallow a bone," he said.

Thomas said she prefers soft chow, like spaghetti, eggs, and oysters, because they go down easier. At a regional qualifier earlier this year, a potato skin lodged painfully, if briefly, in her throat. A week later, she had to eat through the pain to win the final.

"Maybe women have smaller throats than men," she speculates.

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, and at least some eaters say they can't do it. If it's possible, said Hickman, "I'd love to get there."

While Hickman looks to improve his art, others hope to steer young people away from the game, to prevent glorification of overeating. This is the last thing America needs, they say.

"Food is abused by so many people," said D. Milton Stokes, a Bronx, N.Y., dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "It just scares me a little to see something like this celebrated."

"The only kind of competitive eating I like to see," said dietitian Taub-Dix, "is which one of my kids can eat the most vegetables in one day."

Her children would face stiff competition in Conti. He once downed more than 43 ounces of green beans in six minutes.

Posted by Wintermute at November 29, 2005 11:06 AM
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