Should speed-eating contests be banned?

This eating contest season, there was only one death this year, as far as I can determine. A 41-year-old California man died in August while participating in a taco eating contest at a minor league baseball game. The coroner said he choked to death. In case you were wondering, the Associated Press thoughtfully stated: “It was not immediately known how many tacos the man had eaten or whether he had won the contest.” Other reports said he had collapsed and fallen to the ground. The contest was immediately stopped, and the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team canceled another eating contest, the Taco Truck Throwdown.

In 2018, a former South American boxing champion collapsed and died on live TV during a croissant eating contest as his sister looked on.

Two deaths occurred in 2017. A 20-year-old woman died after participating in a charity pancake eating contest on the campus of a Connecticut university. A Colorado man died on the same day as the Connecticut woman as he tried to rapidly eat a half-pound “donut the size of a small cake.”

How can professional speed eaters down as many as 74 hot dogs in 12 minutes? A 2007 paper by radiologists from the University of Pennsylvania compared gastric size and emptying of a competitive speed eater to a normal man as a control. They found the amateur was able to eat only seven hot dogs before feeling full and unable to continue. See figure 1.

The pro ate two hot dogs at a time. After 10 minutes had consumed 36 of them and felt no discomfort. Over time, he had trained his stomach to dilate. Also, his gastric emptying was very slow, with almost no pieces of hot dog leaving the stomach. See figure 2.

As is the case with many world-class speed eaters, the pro was not overweight at 5’ 10” tall and 165 pounds. He told the investigators he could eat prodigious amounts of food without feeling sated, but he carefully monitored his intake to avoid gaining weight.

In the discussion section of the paper, the authors speculated about potential complications speed eaters might suffer later in life, such as the eventual inability of the stomach to empty at all, which might require surgery. They might also lose the motivation to eat moderately and become obese.

I would never attend a professional speed-eating contest, but if people train for it and others will pay to watch, who is to say it’s any worse for the participants than boxing or NFL football?

Amateur speed-eating contests are dangerous, and organizations should think twice about sponsoring them. The family of the coed who died as a result of the pancake eating contest is suing the school, which has responded by saying her “injuries and damages were caused in whole or in part by [her] own carelessness and negligence.”

I think the school will settle. Do you disagree?

Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon who blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.  This article originally appeared in Physician’s Weekly.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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