Ready, Set, Eat! Food as Competition

by Lola Rosewig on February 27, 2013

Do you know how many hot dogs you can eat in one minute? Have you ever challenged your friends to see who could eat more? Eating as sport has become increasingly popular, even spawning TV shows like Man vs. Food.

This type of competition was pretty foreign to me. That is, until last week.

So there I was out to lunch with friends at a Mexican restaurant when I was faced with a challenge. This was not the usual challenge of navigating the menu, but a real challenge. Would I be brave enough to attempt to conquer Mt. Nacheesemo?

“Mt. Nacheesemo”
Photo credit: Kevin Sun

This is the name of a mountain of nachos loaded with every possible topping and a pool of liquid cheese at the top dripping down the sides of the mountain like lava. Apparently this restaurant issues a challenge to brave eaters to consume the entire 5-pound portion in less than 45 minutes, unaided by friends or trips to the bathroom. Should one accomplish this feat, he would receive the meal for free, a t-shirt, picture on the wall, and of course bragging rights.

Being health-minded students at the table, a conversation naturally ensued about the health effects of this and other types of eating competitions.

To my knowledge there are two main types of eating competitions: first, the classic speed eating—how many hot dogs, for example, can you consume in 2 minutes? Second, facing a fixed quantity of food you must consume either more quickly than your opponents, or before the clock runs out. Both of these situations require an amazing capacity of the stomach to expand to accommodate all that food.

As in many forms of competition, competitive speed eating requires pushing the physical limits of the body. And there can be consequences. Interested researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School used gastrointestinal (GI) fluoroscopy (an X-ray imaging technique that produces moving images) to assess the stomachs of a world-class speed eating champion and that of a control.

What they found was that the speed eater had a much larger stomach than the control. They propose it had been stretched out from “training,” in other words incrementally stretching the stomach to its maximum over time so that it actually increases in size.

Image courtesy of dream designs /

It is easy to imagine that if you had a big empty sac for a stomach, you probably wouldn’t feel full after a “normal” meal. Usually when your stomach expands to a certain capacity to accommodate food this triggers stretch receptors to signal your brain that you are getting full. But in this situation, this feedback mechanism will not be triggered except by unhealthy quantities of food.

These researchers further propose that putting the body through this type of eating behavior can lead to morbid obesity, gastroparesis (partial paralysis of the stomach in which stomach contents do not empty normally into the small intestine), nausea, vomiting, and possible need for gastric surgery.

In other studies, self-reported speed of eating was associated with a higher body mass index (BMI), which is often used as a proxy for obesity. Fast speed of eating is also linked to a greater risk of type II diabetes mellitus.

This research supports my gut instinct that this kind of activity just can’t be good for you. And as it turned out, my low tolerance for risk when it comes to potential GI injury won out and I did not attempt Mt. Nacheesemo. Neither did my friends. Instead, the three of them (all burly guys) teamed up and still could not finish it–and each of them experienced the uncomfortable stretch of their stomachs that day.

They couldn’t finish it all.
Photo credit: Kevin Sun

I’m glad I sat that one out. I think the next time I go out to eat, the only challenge I will accept will be to push myself to eat slowly and mindfully and to pay attention to when I feel full.


mark freedman February 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm

This article wiil make me think twice before consuming large amounts of
food at a single sitting. Well written. Thanks!

Lola Rosewig February 28, 2013 at 10:57 am

Thanks for reading and giving feedback!

Ashley Patriarca February 27, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Lola, fascinating topic and post. I love that you used a recent incident from daily life as the framework for the post – it serves as a natural, interesting way into the topic. It might be helpful to add brief context about the professional eating competitors, too. It amazes me that there are people who make a living on how quickly they can eat hot dogs! This would be especially helpful since these individuals seem to be the participants in the research study you describe – it would provide an even tighter, clearer connection among the subtopics in your post.

Lola Rosewig February 28, 2013 at 11:02 am

Thank you for your comment. When writing this post I debated about delving into the world of professional eating competitions. It’s good to have your feedback that this may have been a route that would have added to my post.

If interested you can check out this like to the Major League Eating website for more details on the professional competitions. Apparently there is an official governing body!

Kevin February 28, 2013 at 9:05 am

Wow! I found this blog really interesting, I liked that fact there was two types of food competitions such as how many you can eat in a certain amount of time and first to finish the most wins. Also I like the choice of food you chose to eat instead of hot dogs because eating hot dogs is just top plain and boring to watch. I remember entering a food contest to see who could eat a pouting in less than 3 minutes! I ate mine in 3.45 seconds! # after reading the article I am just wondering, what other consequences could you develope if you et to much in. Contest?

Lola Rosewig February 28, 2013 at 11:09 am

As mentioned in the article this type of overeating can potentially lead to obesity and associated conditions (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc.), but also gastrointestinal issues like impaired stomach emptying and nausea and vomiting. I also feel that on a psychosocial level, it is an unhealthy relationship to have with food. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Paul February 28, 2013 at 9:25 am

I like how you did a post on this told others that if there doing this eating competitions and people that want to start to not to start. I Liked how you chose to eat it with your friends instead of youself !! Something I didn’t know about eating compititions train to stretch there stomachs to eat more.Your topic reminded me not to over eat on my portions.Last my only question is anyone died in this compitions ? #SPX9

Lola March 1, 2013 at 8:36 am

Apparently there was a Florida man who choked to death during a cockroach eating contest last year. That’s just one example. But it seems biologically plausible that choking or airway obstruction could occur while trying to eating very quickly.

Matthew. A February 28, 2013 at 9:33 am

I really like your topic because I learned a large portion can ruined your stomach. Also I learned that people who eat food as a competion they train their stomach to stretch over time so they can eat more. How many calories are in portion like that? How long would it take for an average man to stretch his stomach to become a copetitive eater? #SPX9

Lola March 1, 2013 at 8:40 am

I could not say how many calories are being consumed during this type of activity. Calorie consumption would be dependent on what was being eating and the exact quantity ingested.

As for stretching out the stomach, I don’t know how long that would take. But, consistent overeating will surely do the trick. The length of time and the consistency in “training” will determine how stretched out and large the stomach gets.

Tori February 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

Dear Lola, I liked how simply this was written. It made it easy to understand and got the message across well. I was unaware that eating a lot can perminantly stretch your stomach. I think that the dangers of having your stomach expanded could be expressed more. Are there any ways to “reverse” your stomach stretching.

Tori March 1, 2013 at 8:48 am


Lola Rosewig March 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

Thanks for reading and commenting! Certainly feeling stuffed after a meal happens to us all from time to time. And don’t fear that you are doing permanent damage. It it only when you consistently overeat–meal after meal–that your stomach enlarges. To an extent, this won’t hurt you. But, when it becomes extreme, as with competitive eaters, that is when you are at risk for the adverse health effects.

As for reversing the stretch. In theory, by consistently eating small meals, so that the stomach never reaches maximum stretch over time may lead to a small “reversal.” However, if the stomach expansion has been EXTREME the only effective option may be gastric surgery. There are procedures, like the “gastric sleeve” procedure used in bariatric surgery, that can reduce the size of the stomach.

Kelly Bissonette February 28, 2013 at 10:17 am

Interesting article, Lola. We should make Jon read this!

Lola Rosewig March 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

Thanks for reading Kelly!

Kaila February 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Dear Lola,
Wow! That was a very well written blog. I like how you connected the topic about food competitions to what you were challenged in real life. I can`t believe so many people in the world would harm theirself and enlarge their stomach constantly, for a contest! I never knew the people train for a food competition and also how much harm this contest can do to your body. It amazes me to think that every person who is in an eating competition and who knows the concequences, still do it! If I were about to join an eating competition, I would for sure think twice, like you did, and not do it. This really got me thinking about how I should begin to eat my food because I eat very fast right now and end up feeling sick. Your blog has influenced me to eat slower because it can harm my body and I don`t want that.
Anyways, Thank you very much for this blog because helped me out a lot and I really enjoyed reading it. I hope your friends feel better from how much they ate and I will begin to spread the story to others because I think everyone should see it and understand why they might feel sick after they eat.
Before I go, I have three questions… Approximatly, how many calories do people in the food competions eat? Secondly, does their body ever get used to how much they consume? My last question is how do they train for this?
If you have the answers to any of my questions please reply.
This was an amazing and helpful blog…. SPREAD THE STORY!:)

Lola Rosewig March 1, 2013 at 8:58 am

Thanks for your comments and enthusiasm!
1. I could not say how many calories are being consumed during this type of activity. Calorie consumption would be dependent on what was being eating and the exact quantity ingested.
2. Certainly the body has a great capacity to adapt. The phenomenon of the stomach stretching out over time is itself an example of the body getting used to this type of eating behavior.
3. As I mentioned in the article, “training” involves eating large quantities on a regular basis to challenge the stomach and stimulate it to expand over time.

I hope you do indeed practice slower eating in your life. It is a healthier way to go!

Michael February 28, 2013 at 10:17 pm

You forgot the third type–eat a modest amount of food laced with insane amounts of ghost chili, habanero or other extreme heat spice.

Lola March 1, 2013 at 8:32 am

I was unaware of that type of competition. Thanks for sharing!

Mari March 1, 2013 at 8:40 am

Dear Lola, Your topic is really interesting. I like how you used pictures on your blog. I didn’t know that some people train themselves just for a eating competition! Also that eating too much can permanently stretch your stomach. I was wondering how many calories are there in a portion like that? What are the other consequences could you get if you eat too much? #SPX9

Lola Rosewig March 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

Thanks for your comments!
As I responded to another comment, I could not say how many calories are being consumed during this type of activity. Calorie consumption would be dependent on what was being eating and the exact quantity ingested.

As for the consequences, I mention in the post: obesity, diabetes, gastroparesis, nausea, vomiting, etc. But remember, that is for the specific behavior of competitive eating. If a regular person eats too much, that is a different story. Also, it matters if you eat too much just once or regularly. The acute effects of overeating will include gastrointestinal symptoms and discomfort–as most of us have experienced at one time or another. Habitual overeating will set you at high risk of obesity and subsequent health conditions.

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