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Speed eaters risk medical conditions, even death in competitions

ANDREWS AFB, Md. -- People who compete in speed eating competitions may face medical risks if they aren't careful. 

Some of the medical risks include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, heartburn, painful abdominal gas and food getting stuck in the esophagus, said Maj. (Dr.) Sean P. Hurley, 79th Medical Operations Squadron Medicine Service Flight gastroenterologist. 

"I'm aware of two deaths associated with speed eating," said Major Hurley. "Both were from choking, and both occurred in competitions at bars where an emergency medical technician wasn't in attendance." 

Weight gain, nutritional problems, gastric failure and obesity are other problems speed eating may cause, said Dr. David C. Metz, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the people to be featured in a documentary about the science of speed eating on the National Geographic Channel early next year. The documentary will also focus on three top speed eaters, such as Andrews' Sonya Thomas. 

Doctor Metz said no formal medical studies have been conducted on competitive eating due to the lack of private or public funding. Such studies would be useful to medical professions in understanding people with abdominal pain syndrome. 

Major Hurley believes a study of speed eaters would give medical professionals insight on stomach distension and satiety, which is a gut-to-brain reflex regulated primarily by hormones. 

"Competitive eaters have amazing abilities to stretch the stomach in response to food without feeling full and without emptying their stomachs," said Doctor Metz. 

Competitive eaters remind him of predators, he said. Predators have the ability to eat lots of food at one sitting and then may go days without eating again, compared to grazers, who eat regularly. 

Speed eaters appear to have habitually trained their stomachs to expand more than normal to hold large amounts of food quickly, said Major Hurley. 

"Many of the champions are quite thin," he said. "Some think that the extra fat in obese individuals actually impairs the stomach's ability to expand."
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