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'Extreme eaters' to bust wide open!

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As someone said in a song, "It's the most won-der-ful time of the year," and for many of us, it's true. For some people, however, this holiday season will be a time of dread, an ordeal to be avoided. Why? No, not because they've lost their jobs or they're lonely or their parents hate them or their dog died, or any of that traditional Christmas sob story stuff. You can read those kinds of columns in the Observer. We're talking about a whole other angst-ridden group, the potential victims of a dangerous new underground fad: the relatives and friends of SEEPers.

Let me explain. Reports started surfacing on the Web a couple of months ago about a new, extreme cult of ennui-ridden envelope-pushers who formed a semi-official group called SEEP (Stomachs Expanding and ExPloding). That's right, this holiday, some people want to deliberately eat so much that their stomachs will explode. Already, several performance artists have rallied to SEEPers' defense, claiming that the uber-eaters' self-destruction is "a great metaphor for the commercial glut of the holidays. We don't intend to kill ourselves for our art, but to SEEPers everywhere, we say, 'Well done.'"

One crucial questions remains for these potential gut-busters: Can it really be done? Sure, it's a standard holiday cliché -- you've heard it a hundred times. Everyone has finished chomping and slurping their way through a huge Christmas dinner and someone lying on the couch groans and laments, "God, I ate so much, I feel like I'm gonna burst" (or "bust," depending on whether your family is Southern). Sure, it's just an expression, but could you really eat so much your stomach would blow wide open? God knows, SEEPers are determined to find out.

We spoke to someone who has researched this critical new holiday issue, San Francisco writer Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She once wrote an essay titled "Unhappy Meal" for Salon.com, which became a kind of cult morbid-interest story on the Web.

Roach told us, "I've always had a habit of morbid inquiry, I suppose ... I always eat like a pig at Thanksgiving and I've wondered while I'm eating, you know, if I just keep going, what would it take for my stomach to burst? [laughs] ... I went to pubmed.org [a Web site of the National Library of Medicine]... and went from there."

It turns out that when your stomach bursts, it doesn't literally pop open and your latest feast flies out onto the floor. In fact, the only spectacular thing about it is likely to be the size of the subsequent funeral bill. What happens is that your stomach ruptures, and billions of bacteria flood the surrounding area inside your body, creating a giant systemic infection, which usually kills you within hours. But no, your gut doesn't explode like a spring-loaded piñata.

How much do you have to consume before your stomach rips open and proves the SEEPers right? There's no one clear answer. European researchers in the late 19th century concluded that a mere four liters of food would kill you, but as Roach noted, "I see people on Fear Factor or those food-eating contests who eat more than that." Since those 19th century tests, untold numbers of gluttons, including my great uncle Arnold, have broken the four-liter barrier and survived -- in Uncle Arnold's case, repeatedly. On the other hand, some of those people haven't made it to breakfast the next morning.

No one knows who ate the most food before busting a gut, but Roach thinks it might be a 23-year-old London fashion model who, during one meal, packed away 19 pounds of food: a pound of liver, two pounds of kidney, an 8-ounce steak, a pound of cheese, two eggs, a cauliflower, a couple of slices of bread, 10 peaches, two apples, four pears, four bananas, two pounds of plums, two pounds of carrots, two pounds of grapes and, lest she become parched, two glasses of milk. She died.

I know what you're thinking: How will I know when my stomach has successfully burst and I can quit eating? After all, I don't want to waste any food if I've already reached my goal. Doctors say you needn't worry. When your stomach gives up the ghost, you'll probably hear, as one medical authority quoted by Roach put it, a "sudden explosion," along with a sensation of "giving way."

A word of warning before you join SEEP and embark on your binge: If you happen to get more than halfway to the bursting point and change your mind about the wisdom of risking death, do not, repeat do not take Alka-Seltzer. Roach reported on a woman who, in 1941, packed away "macaroni, meatballs, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, bread, pie, three glasses of grape juice and several shots of whisky" and who, feeling uncomfortable, took some baking soda in water. You guessed it. The gas from the fizz ballooned her stomach past its limit, it burst, and she died soon after. The lesson here: Don't dabble in half-measures. If you're gonna go bust, go all the way or don't start at all. So, from me to you, happy holidays -- and happy eating!

A different version of this column appeared in CL in 2005.

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