July 1, 2006 Eating champions are able to keep gorging on food way past beyond the point where most people would be nauseated by food. While they practice to expand their stomach, much of their skills may come from suppressing the hormones that signal to the brain that the stomach is full, gastroenterologists say. Doctors hope that studying competitive eaters will help learn more about gastric diseases.
PHILADELPHIA -- Ah, summertime grilling, where one hotdog turns into a craving for seconds ... and thirds ... and ... 36 hot dogs in 12 minutes without getting sick?! It's enough to gross out most of us, but competitive eating isn't for everyone. It takes a rare breed, like "Humble" Bob Shoudt, to want to gorge on food.
"I thought, 'It doesn't look that hard to do, so I'll give it a try.' I'll try anything once," Shoudt tells DBIS.
But once wasn't enough, Shoudt continues to compete -- begging the question -- how does he do it? Now, for the first time, gastroenterologists want to study competitive eaters to learn the secrets of power eating.
"These competitive eaters are an interesting group of people who seem to have abilities that many people in the normal population don't have," David Metz, a gastroenterologist at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, tells DBIS.
Many competitive eaters train for an event by chugging gallons of water to help stretch the stomach. Others eat large quantities of low-calorie, high-fiber foods, like cabbage, that stay in the stomach longer before breaking down. Doctors believe expert eaters may have the ability to keep eating after they're full by suppressing the stomach signals to the brain that indicate it's satisfied.
"As the food starts emptying into the small bowel, that switches on hormone stimuli. If those are dampened or blocked, you can eat beyond it," Dr. Metz says.
And, ever notice many winners are thin? It's possible their stomachs can expand more since there is little fat to push against it. Dr. Metz says, "As long as the stomach can relax, they'll be able to get more in, relative to the guy who is big and has a lot of abdominal fat."
Doctors hope studying competitive eaters will help learn more about gastric diseases and learn what it took to beat Shoudt, who placed a proud second in this contest. The winner devoured 36-and-a-half hotdogs, eight more than Shoudt could swallow!
BACKGROUND: Competitive eaters can pack away hot dog after hot dog, consuming far more in a mere few minutes than the average person could eat in a week.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN? Some medical specialists believe they can learn something basic about gastrointestinal physiology from these kinds of people, and perhaps apply it to combat overeating and obesity. For instance, studying competitive eating could help researchers understand the mechanisms of swallowing and triggers for "fullness", and why they don't seem to work properly in some people. It could also lead to breakthroughs in treatment for dyspepsia, a common disorder in which people experience pain and bloating after eating a modest meal. Something triggers the stomach to send a discomfort signal to the brain prematurely. Competitive eaters seem to be able to suppress this distress signal. As the stomach fills with food, its muscles relax in response, enabling it to swell. Competitive speed eaters can tolerate a higher degree of tension before becoming uncomfortable.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE: Many contestants have a strict training regiment, guzzling large amounts of water or consuming huge quantities of lower-calorie food such as cabbage to expand their stomachs. They, like sword swallowers, are also adept at relaxing the muscles that line the esophagus all at once, turning it into a hollow pipe. Competitive eating is not without its perils. It can lead to vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea and painful gas, not to mention choking, stomach rupture and inflammation of the esophagus in the throat. Eating too quickly can cause one to swallow bones, which can injure intestines, and incompletely chewed food can get lodged in airways.
ABOUT DIGESTION: The digestive system changes food and drink into smaller molecules of nutrients to be absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body. Components include the digestive tract, a series of organs joined in a long twisting tube running from the mouth to the anus. Food moves through the tract in a wave-like movement called peristalsis, in which muscles propel food and liquid through the system. It travels from the mouth, through the esophagus and into the stomach, where it mixes with stomach acids. The stomach then empties the contents into the small intestine, where it is dissolved further and the nutrients absorbed through the intestinal walls. Waste products move into the colon and are eventually expelled through the anus.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.