Watching a bunch of people wolfing down as much food as they can as fast as they can may seem funny — until it’s not.
Travis Malouff, 42, died April 2 after attempting to down a half-pound glazed doughnut in 80 seconds at the Voodoo Doughnuts shop in Denver.
That same day, college student and sorority member Caitlin Nelson, 20, died after having choked three days before during a charity pancake-eating contest at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Nelson, of Clark, N.J., had lost her father, a Port Authority police officer, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The deaths of Malouff and Nelson were terrible accidents in an activity that had been a zany staple of county fairs and small-town festivals before rising to the level of sporting event, with cash prizes, record holders, and an International Federation of Competitive Eating.
Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Brooklyn’s Coney Island is believed to be the granddaddy of eating competitions. Legend has it the event started in 1916 with immigrants seeking to settle an argument about who was the most patriotic by eating a Polish guy’s hot dogs. God bless America.
Reigning male champ Joey Chestnut of California has been dubbed the greatest eater in history – “a national treasure” – by Major League Eating, an arm of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Miki Sudo of Las Vegas won in the women's division.
Philadelphia’s own Wing Bowl manages to be both a zenith and nadir of popular culture. Bob Shoudt, a.k.a Notorious B.O.B or Humble Bob, of Royersford, was the victor of this year’s Wing Bowl XXV, consuming 409 wings. Molly Schuyler, another Californian, won the 2016 Wing Bowl and has broken multiple carnivore records.
Cindy Webster, a spokeswoman for Wing Bowl, said medical personnel are on site at the competition.
Some critics decry the activity’s popularity in a nation with such a high rate of obesity. But speed-eating can do more to the untrained than just add pounds, pushing the body beyond healthy limits.
“This is something we’ve said many times: Don’t try this at home,” said David Metz, a University of Pennsylvania professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology.
Metz was a lead researcher in a study of competitive eating published in 2007 in the American Journal of Roentgenology. Lack of funding prevented further study, but Metz and his colleagues were able to develop theories on competitive eating, including some of its potential dangers.
“Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior,” states the study. Even for the professionals, longer-term harm may include profound gastroparesis (slowing of food movement out of the stomach), intractable nausea and vomiting, and obesity, as well as other health concerns.
In the short term, a speed-eater runs the risk of choking, potentially so overfilling the stomach and esophagus that food has nowhere to go but into the windpipe.
“There’s only one lane for the traffic,” Metz said. “It’s like the Blue Route during rush hour.”
Unlike amateurs, some competitive eaters train to build their eating endurance, but some also seem to have natural ability. Metz said they may have stomachs that naturally relax, or for some reason, their brains don’t get nervous-system communication that their stomachs are filling.
“I think it’s 'nature and nurture,' ” Metz said. “I think the bottom line is you have to be someone who has a stomach that relaxes naturally.”
Think of a predatory carnivore such as a lion, suggested Metz, that gorges itself on a kill because it may be a long time before another major feed. Some speed-eaters, such as the one the Penn researchers studied, appear to lose the ability to feel sated, Metz said. Study subject Tim Janus, known as Eater X during his speed-eating career, was also crowned World Burping Champion in 2012 for a burp that lasted 18.1 seconds.
Some speed-eaters train by drinking large amounts of water. Metz cautioned against that practice, too, especially for novices. It can lead to water intoxication, in which excessive water dilutes the electrolytes in the blood, resulting in cellular damage, and in extreme cases, death.
Wingettes and high spirits aside, speed-eating should give cause for pause, he said.
“The dangers are significant,” Metz said. “The public can be very leery.”