How to eat yourself to death

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You've heard it before. Everyone has finished devouring a huge Thanksgiving dinner and somebody lying on the couch groans, "God, I ate so much, I feel like I'm gonna burst" (or "bust," if your family is Southern).

Did you ever stop to wonder if that's really possible? Could you really eat so much your stomach would blow wide open? In short, can you eat yourself to death? The answer is "It's not easy, but yes, you can."

Mary Roach, author of serious-science-with-a-twist books and , has studied the subject. Roach says, "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)"

Roach shared some of her gut-busting knowledge with us a few years ago. First of all, when your stomach bursts, it doesn't literally pop open and eject your latest feast onto the floor. What happens is your stomach ruptures and billions of bacteria flood the surrounding area inside your body, creating a giant systemic infection that usually kills you within hours. But no, your gut doesn't explode. Sorry if that disappoints anyone.
How much do you have to consume before your stomach rips open? There's no one, clear answer. French and German doctors in the 19th century experimented with cadavers and concluded that a mere four liters of food would kill you. Since then, untold numbers of gluttons - my late Uncle Dewey on a Thanksgiving binge, for instance - have broken the four-liter barrier and survived.

No one really knows who has eaten the most food before busting a gut, but Roach thinks it might be a bulimic 23-year-old London fashion model who, during one epic binge, packed away 19 pounds of food: a pound of liver, two pounds of kidney, an eight-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? I mean, why waste 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 a popping noise or, 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 embark on your belly-busting Thanksgiving binge: If you get more than halfway to the bursting point and you change your mind about the wisdom of risking death for the sake of having something cool to talk about, do not - repeat, do not - take Alka-Seltzer. Roach reports on a woman in 1941 who packed away "macaroni, meatballs, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, bread, pie, three glasses of grape juice and several shots of whiskey" and who, later took some bicarb 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 have a great Thanksgiving - and happy eating!


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