Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Competitive Eating: Sport or Mental Disorder?

You've probably heard of competitive eating before and there's a good chance you might have even tried it yourself as an amateur. I entered a couple of eating contests at local fairs in my day, especially as a young girl but it was nothing more than fun and games.

For some, however, competitive eating is something serious. So much so, in fact, that we now have Major League Eating, an international ranking of the top competitors in this unusual sport. It even inspired the reality TV show, "Man Versus Food."

This year's men's winner of the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest ate 62 franks and buns in 10 minutes and the first-ever women's winner ate 40 hot dogs. It's a fascination that is sweeping far more than just our nation as countries all over the globe feature similar eating contests.

The bizarre sport of competitive eating is nothing short of a freak show to some people. Depending on who you ask, it shouldn't be considered a sport at all. Some call it gluttony, others call it mental disorder- so what is it really?

A government watchdog group in Taiwan calls it a health hazard. "The frequent 'big-stomach' contests not only endanger health but violate the principle of fairness as the contestants who get sick are using the national health insurance resources," said the group, in a statement.

While such contests are not illegal, the group considers them to be against social fairness and justice as well as harmful to health.

Is there any truth to the health hazards of such excessive eating? There is one small study attempting to find out once and for all. The objective was "to assess the stomachs of a world-class speed-eating champion and of a control subject during a speed-eating test in our gastrointestinal fluoroscopy suite to determine how competitive speed eaters are able to eat so much so fast."

The study showed that a competitive eater seemed to lack the "satiety reflex" to cause them to stop eating and the stomach would inflate to an enormous rate to allow for the excess food.

"There's no real documentation of the risks and dangers associated with this sport," says Levine, a doctor in the study.

While some may think anyone who would eat that much food must have a mental disorder, there have also been no tests or studies done to date that clarify anything regarding the mental state of people who choose to participate in such contests. For some, it may be mere curiosity. For others, it's a way to stake their own little claim to fame.

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