Competitive Eating Might Be More Dangerous Than You Think

Every year, Joey Chestnut and his fellow competitive eaters spend their Fourth of July swallowing as many hot dogs as possible.

It’s like a car wreck along the highway: Mortifying, but somehow mesmerizing. You can’t look away no matter how hard you try.

Unfortunately, competitive eaters face some of the same health risks as people living with obesity — even if they aren’t overweight.

A lot can happen when you eat for a living — and it turns out choking isn’t actually the worst of it.

These are the dangers of competitive eating you don’t hear about — and probably won’t be able to put out of your mind next time you witness a high-stakes competition.

Competitive eating

Competitive eating | Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Competitive eaters have a higher risk of liver damage

Over-consuming alcohol isn’t the only habit that can damage your liver over time. Consuming massive amounts of calories — especially from carbohydrates and fat — also forces the organ into overdrive. Take things too far, and you’re in trouble.

While your liver is responsible for removing harmful toxins from your body, it also handles any fat molecules you consume. It either stores them for later use or burns them up to give you energy. Prompt your liver to work nonstop for too long, and it’s going to give out on you.

They could also experience brain damage

Competitive eating is a choking hazard — but not necessarily because food can become trapped in places it’s not supposed to be. If enough chemicals build up in the blood, it can’t carry oxygen throughout the body — and that’s bad. The body experiences hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, when not enough oxygen reaches the organs and tissues.

Hypoxia can cause seizures and/or permanent brain damage, especially if a person becomes oxygen-deprived for an extended period of time.

They stop feeling full

Competitive eaters might spend months to years overcoming something called their satiety reflex. This is how your brain says to your body, “OK, we’re full now, please put down the hot dogs and take a nap.” Feelings of fullness prevent you from consuming enough food to cause physical harm. The reflex also induces vomiting when you’ve gone too far.

Without this reflex, Chestnut and other “professional eaters” can consume large amounts of food in one sitting — often without battling the urge to throw up. This is great if you’re determined to win a hot dog eating contest, but not so great if you want to keep your stomach intact in the decades to come.

Hot dog eating contest

Hot dog eating contest | Stan Honda/AFP/GettyImages

Some might need a gastrectomy

Eating massive amounts of food quickly over time stretches out the stomach. Your stomach is made to stretch, so this isn’t normally a problem. It typically becomes an issue when the stomach stretches out but doesn’t return to its normal size.

When this happens, there’s a chance the stomach could twist itself and stop emptying solid food into the intestines. A gastrectomy would involve removing part of the organ in order to salvage digestion.

Competitive eaters voluntarily put themselves through the experience for the sake of the sport. They know the risks and chow down anyway. Only time — and plenty of research — will reveal how these competitions might impact the physical health of pro eaters in the long-term.

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