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.