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The dog-gone dirty truth about speed eating contests

By The Health News Team | July 4, 2024
Hot dogs with mustard on a plate with American flag toothpick

It’s no secret that hot dogs aren’t the best addition to your daily diet. High in sodium, fat and nitrates — a food preservative that has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers — having a hot dog should probably be limited to Fourth of July celebrations or the occasional summer BBQ.

That begs the question: If eating the occasional hot dog or two isn’t the best choice, what about eating 76 hot dogs — in 10 minutes?

That’s the number of hot dogs Joey Chestnut, reigning king of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held each year on July 4, ate in 2021. He won $10,000 for the fast food-eating feat and worldwide acclaim.

But at what cost?

According to one study, the risks of training for and participating in speed eating contests include:

  • The slowing of food movement out of the stomach, known as gastroparesis

  • Chronic nausea

  • Vomiting

  • A hole in the digestive tract, known as gastric perforation

  • A tear in the lining of the lower esophagus called a Mallory-Weiss tear

  • Rupturing of the esophageal wall, known as Boerhaave syndrome

  • Morbid obesity, due to loss of the ability to feel full or satisfied when eating

  • Damage to stomach muscles

Additionally, among the greatest risks of speed eating contests is the risk of choking. Since 2012, an estimated 10 or more people have died due to choking during a competition.

How it’s done

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, speed eaters expand the stomach to make it capable of accommodating enormous amounts of food. They do this by eating large quantities of cabbage or the food items they’ll be eating during contests.

Many speed eaters also regularly drink gallons of liquids, usually water, which is known as water loading. This helps stretch their stomachs without taking in extra calories. However, water loading comes with its own life-threatening risks, including a significant drop in body temperature, a dangerous upset in the body’s electrolyte balance and swelling of the brain.

Chestnut, it’s reported, also does a two-day cleanse of water and lemon juice before his training days and each contest. And he does jaw and throat exercises to prepare them for the “hard work” they’ll do in a competition.

During the contest, Chestnut soaks the hot dogs in water and shoves as many in his mouth as he can — a tactic known as “chipmunking.” He uses the Valsalva maneuver — the technique you might use to “pop” your ears by closing your mouth, pinching your nose closed, and trying to exhale while bearing down — to move the food through his esophagus. He also jumps up and down to help the food make its way through his body.

Should you try it?

While Chestnut has found success and fame through his speed-eating skills, it’s definitely not an activity for everyone. In fact, the Philadelphia researchers concluded that speed eating is “a potentially self-destructive form of behavior that over time, could lead to morbid obesity, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for gastric surgery.”

Others complain about the waste of food that occurs during a contest, especially when more than 44 million people live in food-insecure households in the United States. And in 2021, China banned the competitions for their “celebration of gluttony” and waste.

What’s more, Chestnut won’t even be at the hot dog-eating table this Fourth of July. He has been banned by the contest’s sponsor for signing an endorsement deal with a competitor.

It’s not clear if the company, a plant-based hot dog manufacturer, will be hosting a rival speed-eating contest. However, Chestnut reached out to his fans on social media, saying “Rest assured that you’ll see me eat again soon!”

If it’s plant-based hot dogs he’s eating, Chestnut will at least be consuming half the saturated fat found in meat hot dogs and no added nitrates.

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