n a grueling 10-minute display of eating prowess, competitors in the annual July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest shove as many of the famous franks down their throats as they can – and risk a litany of potential health complications.
“It’s a sport for reasons that are not clear,” David Poppers, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health, told The Daily News. “And it’s fascinating in terms of what the body can handle and adapt to, but competitive eating is certainly not recommended.”
Poppers explained that competitive eaters practice techniques that allow their stomachs to expand over time; eating different kinds of foods in larger and larger quantities for months on end.
“They’ll alter their diets probably several days before competition and only take in liquids and protein supplements,” he said. “But medical professionals do not advocate this. There are plenty of other ways to celebrate the 4th of July.”
People who eat or drink in excess, like those who will be competing at Nathan’s Wednesday, can suffer abdominal pain, discomfort, nausea and may even vomit. Poppers said that they can choke on what they’re eating and are at risk of aspirating – which is when the stomach’s contents leak into the lungs mid-vomit, which can cause pneumonia.
“Heavy retching can develop small tears in the esophagus,” Poppers said. “Or you can develop what’s called a Mallory-Weiss tear, a rip in the lining of the tissue where the stomach and esophagus meet.
“Longer term, I’d be concerned about stretching the stomach over time,” he said. “There haven’t been many studies conducted in the field of competitive eating but there’s some evidence that it can affect the stomach’s ability to contract after eating, a condition known as gastroparesis. The stomach can’t empty properly, making the patient feel full and nauseous all the time and can cause vomiting.”
When competitive eaters train for their sport, they confuse the signals from the gut that alert the brain when it’s full and should stop eating, effectively obscuring the system that initiates stomach contractions and the digestive process. This in turn allows them to eat more but hinders their body’s “ability to begin emptying.”
“Vomiting – a disqualification at Nathan’s as far as I know – in a chronic way from overeating puts you at risk of tearing the stomach and esophagus,” Poppers said, “and severe retching can cause an esophageal rupture.”
The Brooklyn tournament, which has been crowning super eaters since 1972, takes place each year adjacent to the original Nathan’s Famous location on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Aves. in Coney Island. The coveted Mustard Belt prize has been Joey Chestnut’s to defend for 10 out of the last 11 years. The 34-year-old holds the all-time record for the contest, managing to eat 72 franks last year in 10 minutes.
But virtual newcomer Carmen Cincotti — who finished in second place last year — has been preparing for Wednesday’s rematch.
“In the off season, I stick to vegetables and things that are heavy in water – like a head of lettuce,” he said. “But leading up to Nathan’s, I’ll eat a lot of hot dogs: I’ll dunk the buns in the water, shove two in (my mouth) at a time.”
Cincotti said on Tuesday that in the hours after the tournament, the hot dogs he wolfs down will settle and that process will be uncomfortable, but not necessarily painful.
“I’m used to it,” he assured The News. “I’ve built up my stomach to hold all this food.”
Cincotti — who will celebrate his 25th birthday with or without a win on Independence Day — isn’t too concerned with the health risks but says he’s in “close contact” with his general practitioner. The challenger said that if his doctor gives him a “red flag” or expressed concern about his well-being, he’d give up competitions.
“My safety and health are number one,” he told The News. “He (Cincotti’s doctor) thinks it’s funny. It helps that I’m young and that I’m relatively new to the sport and have only been doing it for three years.”
So far, the eating phenom has had only a few minor health setbacks, like a vitamin deficiency that “could’ve been from anything,” but he said that his doctor runs frequent scans and blood tests to make sure he’s not in danger for prediabetes or high blood pressure.
Cincotti, like many other pro eaters isn’t remotely obese, weighing in at 150 pounds, according to reports. But he’s still able to pack it away. Last year, he downed 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
He boasts the world record for chili eating, which he said he broke in February at a competition in Orlando when he “basically drank” just under two-and-a-half gallons in under six minutes. Last year, he ate 61 and three-quarters ears of corn in 12 minutes and 101 links of bratwurst in 10 minutes. Just two weeks ago, Cincotti says, he packed away 22 pounds of strawberry shortcake.