Inside the Beltway

Last year I blogged about Nathan's Hot Dog eating contest. This year, I gave some thought to attending this spectacle of competitive eating (these plans were laid to rest the night before, when I enganged in the spectacle of competitive drinking).

Anyway, it doesn't look like I missed too much. The same guy, Takeru Kobayashi, won again (though last year, he was frequently called by his nickname, "the Tsunami." Not so much, this year).

Also unchanged: the dearth of scientific inquiry into this ... sport. I mean, it's been over twenty years since competitive race-walking was examined in detail -- is that any more of a sport than competitive eating? Which activity is of more relevance to the obese American taxpayer?

All I can really find on the matter is this press release from the International Federation of Competitive Eating:

The November 2003 Popular Science addresses the tendency for thinner, in-shape gurgitators to beat heavier eaters in competition. Many intuitively believe that a larger individual has more room to hold food, but this is not the case. The magazine states that the size of the stomach at rest is inconsequential and that the ability for the stomach to expand is all that matters.

This is the conclusion reached by former world champion hot dog eater Edward Krachie in his 1998 scholarly journal article, "CAN ABDOMINAL FAT ACT AS A RESTRICTIVE AGENT ON STOMACH EXPANSION? An Exploration of the Impact of Adipose Tissue on Competitive Eating." In his article, Krachie goes a step further and proves that the stomach of a heavier eater is prevented from expanding by a "belt of fat."

The IFOCE and Edward Krachie submitted his piece to numerous academic journals including the New England Journal of Medicine. Sadly, all journals rejected his piece.

Sadly, Popular Science doesn't really conclude the 'belt of fat' theory is correct. The reporter just asserts it, and goes on to talk about satiety signaling. The entire piece is not much longer than the IFOCE press release.

I think there's plenty of room for more ... data. Granted, I have an appetite for this stuff, but I think it's worthy of extra helping from the scientific community. Because the few morsels of information we have now are hard to digest (as are these puns. I'm sorry.)

Krachie and company are arguing, essentially, that a belly of fat is more compressive than skin and muscle are distensible. I'm not convinced. I wouldn't be surprised if the thin eating champs were born with weak pyloric sphincters, or exhibit higher capacity for smooth muscle relaxation. But until we start doing some barium swallows and endoscopies on these people, we're just guessing.

Sooner or later, the reward money for these contests will prompt some competitors to fund their own clandestine research. And it would be a shame if these athletes were smeared with allegations of shady practices. Let's keep the research open and freely available -- let science have a seat at the table.