opens in a new window528 oysters in under 10 minutes. opens in a new window8 pounds of bacon in 8 minutes. opens in a new window113 pancakes in 8 minutes. opens in a new window14.5 burritos in 10 minutes. Competitive eating is a serious sport that requires training, preparation and discipline to come out a champion.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the annual Nathan’s Famous 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. Last year, an estimated 35,000 fans came out to watch two intense competitors win the title from record holding champions.
In the women’s competition, Miki Sudo ate 38 hot dogs, beating out Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas who holds the women’s world record for consuming 45 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. According to her website, Thomas also holds the world records for 15 extra large hard-boiled eggs in 1 minute and 43 jalapeno peppers in 1 minute, records she notes represent any gender. In the men’s competition, Joey Chestnut holds the record for 69 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs and Buns in 10 minutes. However, last year, Matt Stonie pulled an upset and won with 62 hot dogs to Chestnut’s 60.
So how do they do it? In honor of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Nathan’s Famous 4th of July Hot Dog eating contest, let’s explore the science behind what makes a successful competitive eater or, as they are known in the game, “gurgitator.”
1. Train your stomach to expand
Our bodies have what’s called a satiety reflex—once we fill our stomachs to a certain capacity, usually around 1 liter of food, our brain is triggered with the message that we are full. Adding any more food to the mix runs the risk of causing what Major League Eating calls a “Roman incident” or “urges contrary to swallowing.”
Competitive eaters can overcome this reflex by training their stomachs to expand, often by drinking larger and larger amounts of water in short periods of time. Eventually even peristalsis, the muscle movements that push food along through the digestive tract, can be stalled allowing for larger food intake.
The above results were witnessed firsthand in an anecdotal study for National Geographic ( opens in a new windowpublished in the Journal of Roentgenology). Doctors observed what happened to the stomach of a competitive eater versus a “control,” a man described as just having a “healthy appetite.” In describing the technique employed by the competitive eater, Dr Marc Levine, a gastrointestinal radiologist and a co-author on the study opens in a new windowtold Time, “This was not some inherent skill he had since he was a child. For many months he would practice by eating larger and larger volumes of food.”
2. Work out your jaw muscles
Along with training their stomachs, competitive eaters also need to work out their jaws. Consuming 69 hot dogs in under 10 minutes requires a lot of chewing. A LOT. Some competitors chew 20 plus pieces of gum at once in order to build up jaw strength.
Also, the rules of most competitions state that everything counts toward your total as long as you get it in your mouth before the buzzer, as long as you can swallow it in the next 30 seconds. Sometimes that can be the difference between winning and losing.
3. Keep yourself cool
This tip may seem impossible, since many competitive eating competitions are held in the summer often to maximize the number of spectators. However, if your body is overheated, you tend to eat less. You may notice some competitors, like those in the the Nathan’s Famous 4th of July contest, will douse themselves in ice water beforehand to keep cool. Temperature changes are often to blame for why the winner of a competition may fall far short of a world record, even if they are the one who set the record in the first place.
4. Perfect your technique
How you use your hands is also an important part of competitive eating. Being able to fit unlimited burritos into your stomach does not matter if you cannot get the food in there fast enough.
Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi is credited with the “Solomon Technique,” which involves breaking a hot dog in half before putting both halves into your mouth at once, separately from the bun. This method requires less chewing and makes swallowing easier, while getting the entire hot dog in your mouth faster. At the Nathan’s Famous event, you will also notice eaters shoving hot dogs into their mouth with one hand while dunking a bun in water with another.
Many competitive eaters even watch playback video of themselves and others to see what step in the process seems to take them the most time.
5. Learn to suppress your gag reflex
Some competitive eaters—and sword swallowers!—work to avoid triggering their gag reflux through practice. Some use their fingers, while others prefer going over the back of their tongue with a tooth brush whenever they brush their teeth.
6. Be in shape
Not all competitive eaters are overweight. In fact, most are not. The trend toward leaner eating champions has inspired the theory that the presence of fat may actually inhibit the stomach’s ability to expand, although the evidence to support this is only anecdotal.
Competitive eating champion Eric “Badlands” Booker of Queens, who can eat two pounds of chocolate in six minutes and 49 glazed doughnuts in 8 minutes, has noted that some of his results have fluctuated along with his weight, showing that he has been able to eat more when his weight, and thus body fat, was lower.
7. Before a competition, clear out space but don’t go in totally empty
Competitive eating requires stamina, and events are usually held in the middle of the day. So going in on a completely empty stomach may cause fatigue that can slow you down. Some competitors opt for a bit of fruit; others for drinking energy drinks that they can later be sure to eliminate through urination before competition. Still others swear by a cup of strong coffee to clear out their system.
8. Stand up
Another, faster way to clear space for an expanding stomach is simply to stand up. When we sit, we are automatically compressed, making breathing slightly more difficult. (Note that this is a helpful tip for those recording a podcast as well!)
9. Go easy on the liquids
Most competitions allow liquids of some kind and competitors can use them to their advantage whether it be water to soak a hot dug bun to lubricate its journey down the throat or whole milk to cut the capsaicin of a hot pepper. Some competitions involving sweet foods even allow competitors to drink something bitter like coffee or tea. However, liquids obviously take up space in the stomach and so can require compromise.
The temperature of the liquid is also important. My grandfather always refused to drink cold beverages with his meals because he claimed it hindered digestion. It turns out he was onto something. The shock of cold water can make your throat tense up, and so competitive eaters will opt for water as close to body temperature as possible.
Professional eating competitions in the U.S. are governed by opens in a new windowMajor League Eating which assures judging is consistent and that conditions are safe for the eaters. For a list of past and upcoming competitions, as well as current world records, check out their website. MLE further strongly recommends that you not attempt to eat significantly larger amounts of food than you are accustomed to without a proper medical team present. So don’t try this at home, folks.
Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at email@example.com new email.
For more about the history behind Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, check out opens in a new windowFamous Nathan: A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog on opens in a new windowAmazon, opens in a new windowBarnes & Noble, opens in a new windowIndieBound, or opens in a new windowBooksamillion.
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