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Eating Competitions Killed Two People This Past Weekend

Choking is the fourth-leading cause of unintentional injury death—and it happens with disturbing frequency at competitive eating events.

by Alex Swerdloff
Apr 4 2017, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user PaulSteinJC

Eating competitions are an American institution, but can we all finally agree that they are pretty damn dangerous?

This past weekend, two tragic and needless competitive-eating-related deaths occurred within 24 hours of each other. A 20-year-old college student and a 42-year-old Colorado man died in separate choking incidents tied to eating competitions: one involving pancakes; the other, doughnuts.

Caitlin Nelson was a student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut who died Sunday after participating in a Greek-life-sponsored eating contest. She was said to have eaten four or five pancakes when she stopped breathing. Caitlin was said to have multiple food allergies, although it's not clear whether they contributed to her choking. To make the story even more horrific, Caitlin was the daughter of a Port Authority police officer who died on 9/11.

READ MORE: I Can't Be a Food Writer Because I Nearly Choked to Death

Earlier that same day, Travis Malouff, 42, collapsed in the lobby of a Voodoo Doughnut in Denver and was declared dead of "asphyxia, due to obstruction of the airway," according to the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner. He had been participating in a donut-eating challenge before he died.

About Caitlin Nelson's death, the Fairfield, a Connecticut police lieutenant. Bob Kalamaras told the Associated Press, "It's a tragic event that started out as something fun. It was just a tragic accident."

But was it really? Or shouldn't we Americans—who invented the so-called "sport" of competitive eating and propelled it to worldwide fame with the Nathan's Hot-Dog Eating Contest—know better by now?

Eating competitions are tied to a panoply of risks, especially for those who participate on the regular. Sure, there's weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, and hikes in blood pressure that the pros contend with. They can also develop stomach paralysis or gastroparesis, which occurs when a person too often stretches their stomach beyond its normal capacity. Water intoxication and stomach perforation can also happen.

READ MORE: How to Competitively Eat Almost Anything

According to a 2007 study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, "successful speed eaters expand the stomach to form an enormous flaccid sac capable of accommodating huge amounts of food." Nice, right? The scientists concluded that "professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy." 

Their conclusion: "Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior."

OK, you might say, neither of the two unfortunate people who died this weekend were professional competitive eaters. But choking is a real risk for all participants—Injury Facts 2017 reports that choking is the fourth-leading cause of unintentional injury death—and it happens frequently at eating competitions. Earlier this month, a 23-year-old Korean college student died in a bathroom stall at a recreation resort after participating in a pie- and ramen-eating contest. The list of people worldwide who are known to have died in eating contests is a long one, indeed.

So even though eating contests may seem like tons of fun, maybe they're not. At the very least, this past weekend leaves us with food for thought.