Thursday, March 5, 2015

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew: The Science of Competitive Eating

Take a look at the woman in the photograph below. That’s Sonya Thomas, one of the world’s greatest competitive eaters. According to Major League Eating (yes, there is such a thing!), Sonya has been devouring eating records since 2003. Some of her “main course” achievements include the following (and if these whet your appetite, go here for a complete listing):

- Lobster: 44 Maine Lobsters (11.3 Pounds of meat) from the shell in 12 minutes
- Hamburgers: 7 Burgers (3/4 pound) "Thickburgers" in 10 minutes
- Crab Cakes: 46 Phillips Crab Cakes in 10 Minutes
- Cherrystone Clams: 26 dozen in 6 minutes
- Cheesecake: 11 pounds Downtown Atlantic Cheesecake in 9 minutes

At 44 years of age and just 105 pounds, it might surprise you to learn Sonya Thomas can eat more in one sitting than some people consume in a week.
You are probably wondering how a petite woman like Sonya can pack away pounds of food in the same amount of time it takes to microwave a Hungry Man entrée. She is just one of a collection of elite gobblers that defy all logic with the speed and quantity of food they seem to inhale rather than ingest. Very recently, Matt “Megatoad” Stonie broke the record for bacon – he managed to stuff 182 slices (about 6 pounds) of the pork candy into his slim frame in just 5 minutes. We don’t want to know what he ate in order to acquire his nickname.
What is it about these competitive eaters that make them such efficient food vacuums? The question interested several researchers at The University of Pennsylvania several years ago, who performed live imaging of the stomach of a competitive eater engaged in what he does best. For comparison, a non-competitive eater was also imaged while gorging on as much food as he could.

The results reveal why you can’t spot a competitive eater on the street without a portable fluoroscope. There are no obvious physical attributes that mark a competitive eater. Rather, competitive eaters have a unique and extraordinary ability to expand the stomach to form “an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food.”

Judge me by my size, do you? Size has nothing to do with the ability to stuff oneself silly. In fact, Yoda was a competitive eater prior to becoming a Jedi until Jabba the Hutt accused him of using The Force to choke his opponents.

Under normal circumstances, nerves in the stomach should signal to the brain when it is full, at which point the food moves along down the digestive pipeline into the small intestine. Due to a genetic predisposition, training, or a combination of those two factors, the stomach of a competitive eater will expand rather than process food. The study found that the control subject sent 75% of the meal (hot dogs in this case) into the small intestine by two hours after intake. But the competitive eater only processed 25% of the meal by that time, the bulk of it remaining in something that more closely resembled Santa’s sack of toys than a normal stomach.

The stomach of a competitive eater (right) has an unusual ability to stretch and expand far beyond what occurs in most people when they stuff themselves (left).
The authors of the study expressed concern that competitive eaters can’t have their cake and eat it too:  “We speculate that professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy. Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior.”

While competitive eaters may enjoy fame and fortune (not to mention a lot of free food), living with such an elastic stomach that cannot properly signal when it is full is a double-edged steak knife. Normal mealtime can be a challenge because the competitive eater never reaches that satisfied feeling most people experience. Some competitive eaters weigh out their food and discipline themselves to eat no more than the designated portion.

It is all-too-common for today’s restaurants to challenge us with a ridiculously oversized menu item. These guys might get their picture on the wall for consuming this monstrosity, but they’ll likely regret it in the morning.
What makes our bodies feel full after a meal is another can of noodles, and an area of intense investigation. Current studies suggest that digestion triggers release of hormones that inform the brain that food is being consumed. When they reach a certain level, the brain tells us to stop munching. The signaling can take 10-20 minutes, which is problematic if you are a fast eater and/or the food is really tasty. Due to the delayed signaling, it is rather easy for us to overeat if there is enough food to do so. This is why some argue that a healthy diet is governed by portion size as much as the type of food you eat.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Levine MS, Spencer G, Alavi A, & Metz DC (2007). Competitive speed eating: truth and consequences. AJR. American journal of roentgenology, 189 (3), 681-6 PMID: 17715117

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