69 hot dogs and buns in under 10 minutes. 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.
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 Major 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 Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science 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.
For more about the history behind Nathan's hot dog eating contest, check out Famous Nathan: A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or Booksamillion.