Q&A: What Overeating Does to Our Bodies and How to Avoid It

Local gastroenterologist Dr. Robynne Chutkan sheds light on the effects eating contests can have on our digestive systems.

Overeating can lead to paralysis and tearing of the stomach. Alexandria's Sonya Thomas (not pictured here) won the female Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on Independence Day by consuming 45 hot dogs in 45 minutes. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Hello Turkey Toe.

To state the obvious, it’s summer. And that means lots of barbecues and copious amounts of beer and ice cream. But summer is also the season of eating contests, and last week’s July Fourth was no exception.

During the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island on Independence Day, Alexandria’s Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas won the women’s competition by downing 45 hot dogs in 45 minutes, taking home a whopping $10,000.

While I love my barbecue foods just as much as the next person, I had to know: How truly bad is it for your body to consume that much food in such a short amount of time? Dr. Robynne Chutkan, an integrative gastroenterologist at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital and the founder of the Digestive Center for Women, provided some scary but helpful insight into the world of food contests and overeating. Read on for said insight, plus her tricks to avoid overeating at your next summer get-together.

This past July Fourth, Alexandria native Sonya Thomas ate 45 hot dogs in 45 minutes. The male winner of the Coney Island hot dog contest, Joey Chestnut, ate 68 hot dogs in ten minutes! What happens to a contestant’s body during and after consuming that much food in such a short amount of time?

Assuming about 400 calories per hot dog [depending on the type of sausage, bun, and condiments], 45 hot dogs equals 18,000 calories. Divided by 3,500 calories, that equals about five pounds. That’s not a tremendous amount of weight. They could easily lose the five pounds in the weeks before or after the competition. The problem would be if someone were eating like that all the time. There are definitely some hazards to the stomach from filling it up too much and too fast.

Over time, what does eating that much food do to one’s digestive system?

The biggest danger is developing a condition called gastroparesis, which means paralysis of the stomach. The stomach gets so stretched out that the muscles that normally control contractions and help move food into the small intestine don’t work properly anymore. Pain, nausea, vomiting, and indigestion are all symptoms of gastroparesis, and it is a very difficult condition to treat. Entering an eating competition once will probably make you feel really sick but is unlikely to do permanent damage. Frequent competition or training that involves stretching your stomach on a regular basis by overfilling it is more likely to lead to chronic problems.

If you have an underlying stomach condition such as an ulcer, the stretching could lead to a perforation in the stomach, which could be fatal. This would be a rare but possible complication. Another problem that can occur is vomiting from overstuffing the stomach. When the mouth is full, choking is a distinct possibility, and the vomited food can end up going down the airway into the lungs (aspiration), causing pneumonia.

Why do some people have such a “talent” for eating contests? Are their bodies or digestive systems different from ours?

Most competitive eaters train extensively. They drink large amounts of water over short periods of time to stretch the stomach. They also eat large amounts of fibrous foods like vegetables along with the water to fill up even more. Over time, the stomach stretches and the capacity increases. I’ve heard of competitors who also do jaw exercises so they can chew more efficiently.

It seems like most successful competitive eaters are actually slim rather than overweight. How is that possible?

They train with water and low-calorie foods like vegetables, so they don’t regularly eat 45 hot dogs on a normal day.

What advice or warnings do you have for people who want to get into eating contests?

Take up chess or running instead! There are a lot of potential dangers: choking, vomiting, gastroparesis, and weight gain if you train with the wrong types of food.

For the general, non-competitive-eating public, what tricks or tips do you have to prevent overeating?

• Drink water before a meal to help fill up your stomach so you’ll feel full with less food (but don’t overfill with too much water).

• The capacity of the stomach is about a quart, so be mindful of that when you are eating. Anything more than that is excess.

• Foods with a higher fat content take longer to digest and slow down the emptying of the stomach, making us feel full faster. Consider healthy snacks like avocados and nuts that are relatively high in “good fats.” But, don’t eat too much of them because they’re also relatively high in calories.

• Limit yourself to one plate of food—it’s more than enough for the average person. Don’t allow yourself to have seconds or thirds, no matter how good the food is.

• Sit and savor your food. Eat slowly so your brain has time to register that you’re full.

Any other advice or information you’d like to mention?

Try to think of food more as fuel and medicine than as comfort. Ask yourself: What do I need to eat for breakfast so I can get all my errands done today without feeling like I need a snack? Eating competitions are sort of the antithesis of mindful eating. The human stomach was definitely not designed to hold 45 hot dogs in 45 minutes!