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 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.