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The 2011 U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship in Buffalo, N.Y.
Joe Cascio

After interviewing an MLE chairman, a certain knee-jerk reaction may lead you to dial up the Mayo Clinic. And not just because any general interest article about competitive eating naturally calls for lots of earnest questions and a column of thick, sobering paragraphs about how an activity like this might harm you and what kind of a message it imparts to a country in the throes of rampant obesity issues (not to mention a world suffering from hunger).

Shea has waiting responses to all of these relevant, if obvious, triggers. He emphasizes that safety in these events is a priority. That at-home training is actively discouraged by MLE. That there are no formal health reports in medical literature about the inherent dangers of occasionally eating large quantities of food in a controlled setting for six to 12 minutes. That many top competitive eaters today are trim and in decent shape because excess fat likely impedes performance. That money is routinely raised for food banks and charities from these competitions. And that our country’s epidemic of wasted food would be far better off targeting grocery stores, restaurant buffets, Hollywood craft-service tables and the average American kitchen. And so on.

But on the flip side, plenty of health and ethical concerns from doctors, dieticians, politicians, celebrity spokespeople and others about competitive eating’s risks and ravages — ranging from stomach perforations and water intoxication (competitors drink a lot of water during training to stretch their stomachs) to myriad societal impacts — are an easy Google search away. So, out of a sense of civic duty and comprehensive reporting, I decide to call up the Mayo Clinic. Like contacting the proper authorities if you happen upon a stolen trunk full of Twinkies in the woods, it’s just the right thing to do. When I tell the media personnel at the Mayo Clinic that I’m working on a story about competitive eating, I can feel the energy shift on the phone.

“I’ll see if a nutritionist or GI specialist wants to talk to you,” she says.

I don’t hear back. I call again, and still, nothing. I understand. If I were a busy gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, I probably wouldn’t want to fit in time to discuss the potential pitfalls of eating more than 60 hot dogs or 250 jalapeno peppers either.