PILING ON: Crazy Legs Conti can down massive amounts of corn, oysters and hot dogs. Could there be lasting damage?
At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Crazy Legs Conti stays in shape with jogging (he's run two marathons) and six to eight small, healthful meals a day, heavy on the protein. Most days.
And then there are days when he binges big-time, like the Sunday a few weeks ago when he scarfed a bushel of Florida sweet corn in no time flat.
This was not self-indulgence. It was self-disciplined preparation for the April 27 National Sweet Corn Eating Championship in Palm Beach, Fla., where Conti hoped to defend the title he won a year ago after downing 34.75 ears of corn in 12 minutes. (He came in third.) His practice session, he says, was "to figure out the best way to eat one ear and then extrapolate."
Competitive eating, a pastime once considered small potatoes on the entertainment circuit, is now staking its claim as a grade-A sport. Last summer, the field's signature event, Nathan's Famous 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, drew a crowd of nearly 50,000 and was shown live on ESPN.
The sport's rising status has some doctors shaking their heads: Such behavior could potentially cause medical problems, they say, such as an esophageal tear or flaccid stomachs. No such mishaps have yet been reported.
Researchers, meanwhile, have begun to study the sport a bit, which may help answer a question that must have popped into more than one spectator's head: Are extreme-eating champs born or made?
Conti is one of a cast of colorful "gurgitators" -- he faces off against fan favorites such as Eater X, who cultivates a "man of mystery" image, Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas, who says she's out to devour her male competition, and the original food-funneling phenom, Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi of Japan, who won at the Nathan's Famous eat-off for six years straight before losing in 2007 (while eating injured) to Joey "Jaws" Chestnut.
The ability to cram down 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, as Chestnut did, doesn't fall to everyone.
In a study of competitive eating published last year in the American Journal of Roentgenology, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine compared Major League eater Tim Janus (Eater X) with another male who was a hearty eater. They were both told to eat as many hot dogs as they could in 12 minutes. Before the test, they were given a dose of high-density barium, and the researchers used fluoroscopy to observe their stomachs.
Photo Gallery: Competitive Eaters
At that point, the researchers stopped the test because fluoroscopy showed his stomach had assumed such proportions they feared it might be dangerous.
In general, the stomach tells the brain when it's full and the brain later tells the stomach to squirt its contents into the small intestine. So theoretically, a competitive eater could eat a lot in little time if the stomach could hold all that food without feeling full or if it could keep filling up and emptying very quickly.
Fluoroscopy showed that neither man's stomach had emptied itself much during the test. Indeed, if anything, a preliminary test showed that the amateur's stomach emptied itself faster than Janus'.
Instead, the small study suggests that competitive eaters' stomachs may be much more accepting of food.
It's unclear whether nature, nurture or both determine how accommodating a person's stomach is. "It's partly an innate ability and partly learned," says study coauthor Dr. David Metz, a gastroenterology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues noted that Janus had trained for years, forcing himself to keep eating as his stomach asked him to stop.
Conti trains too -- and this year, he says, he and Janus have both hired a yoga instructor to teach poses and stretches for the stomach to help them achieve at the table. These include Ardha Matsyendrasana (seated spinal twist) and Nauli Kriya (churning of abdomen).
George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating, which oversees 80 competitive eating events a year, believes eaters are born. When he once tried to wolf down hot dogs, "I think I ate six," he says. "Most of our people do not train."
Major League Eating is officially opposed to home training involving large quantities of food, advising that, for safety, speed-eating should be done when appropriate rules are observed and an emergency medical technician is on hand, and never by anyone younger than 18.
Mind-set is also crucial, Shea says. "Some people are gamers. When the pressure is on, they do better than other people." Indeed, Conti hopes his yoga lessons won't just make his stomach more flexible but will also make his mind more relaxed.
The capacities required for competitive eating seem little needed in the real world -- and some doctors worry that such eaters may endanger themselves by developing them.
Metz and colleagues suggest that competitive eaters run the risk of stretching their stomachs so much and so often that, like an old baggy sweater, they eventually won't be able to shrink back to their original size. There is some evidence supporting this fear. Research has shown that obese people have larger stomachs than lean people, and a 2004 study found that obese binge eaters have the largest ones of all. A permanently and severely over-stretched stomach could lose the ability to contract and empty itself, necessitating surgery to relieve the consequent nausea and vomiting.
Dr. Thomas Zarchy, a USC gastroenterology professor, says competitive eaters put themselves at risk for a Mallory-Weiss tear, a rupture where the stomach and esophagus meet. And, over the long haul, doctors say, these eaters might become obese.
Shea says that none of these problems have yet occurred among competitive eaters. "The top 20 are all in incredible shape," he says. (Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas, holder of 26 world eating records, weighs 100 pounds.)
But the danger might come later, the doctors say, when eaters have stopped competing and may have lost the willpower needed to curb their enthusiastic appetites -- having long ago lost the ability to tell when they're full.
Still, with health risks largely theoretical so far, even doctors tend to water down their warnings. "Speed-eating isn't the best thing in the world," Metz says. "But it's not yet been shown that it's a bad thing."
Adds Zarchy: "Everything has a benefit and a risk. Would I do it? No."
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