By Christie Aschwanden, The New York Times
Over the Fourth of July weekend, with streams of sweat pouring down his face, Joey Chestnut broke his own world record for hot dog eating, by downing 75 hot dogs (with buns) in 10 minutes at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. It was his 13th win at the annual contest. And Miki Sudo set a women’s record, 48.5 hot dogs, to grab her seventh straight Nathan’s win.
Because of the coronavirus crisis, the event was held virtually this year, and Dr. James Smoliga was glued to his screen, rooting for new records. For the past few months, Smoliga, a veterinarian and exercise scientist, had been working on a mathematical analysis of the maximum number of hot dogs that a human could theoretically consume in 10 minutes.
“The answer is 83,” said Smoliga, a professor at High Point University in North Carolina.
He has now published the full analysis, which calculated this number based on 39 years of historical data from the Nathan’s contest, as well as on mathematical models of human performance that consider the potential for extreme athletic feats.
“It’s a great paper,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who studies human performance, adding that the analysis shows the classic fast rise in performance followed by more gradual improvements that happen when an event becomes professionalized. The best part, he said, is that Smoliga wrote it with a straight face.
Smoliga’s calculations show that when adjusted for body mass, the world’s most competitive hot dog eaters could outeat a grizzly bear or a coyote, as measured by the amount of food per unit of time. Bears can eat the equivalent of about eight hot dogs per minute, compared with Chestnut’s ability to eat 7.5 per minute, but the bears don’t continue at this pace for more than six minutes, Smoliga said. What Chestnut and Sudo have over these animals, he said, is speed.
Still, these outlandish human eating competitions pale in comparison with a gray wolf’s ability to eat the equivalent of about 11 hot dogs per minute. Humans do not come close to eating as much as the Burmese python, which can consume up to 75% of its body weight in a single meal. That would be like the 132-pound Sudo eating 99 pounds of hot dogs in one sitting, said James Hicks, an evolutionary biologist who has studied snake physiology at the University of California, Irvine. (How many hot dogs a python can ingest in 10 minutes hasn’t been scientifically tested.)
In fact, simply sorting these animals by known eating speed and capacity may not be the best way to predict their performance in an eating contest.
“It’s nice to make a comparison amongst species, but I don’t know if it’s exactly the same,” said Annelies De Cuyper, an animal nutritionist at Ghent University in Belgium. The consumption numbers from wild animals come from studying their normal behavior, whereas human eating records are an example of abnormal eating patterns. “If you put them all together in a contest, I don’t know who would win,” she said. (Smoliga acknowledged that he had not looked at pacing strategy. “I think it is possible that a top eater, like Joey Chestnut, may be able to eat at a similar rate to a wolf for a shorter duration,” he said.)
The chief factor limiting how much a person (or animal) can eat at once is the stomach’s capacity for stretching to accommodate the volume of food. In 2007, a study examined the digestive tracts of two men — one a competitive eater, the other a regular volunteer — when they took part in a simulated hot dog eating contest in a lab. The control subject stopped after seven hot dogs, declaring that he would be sick if he ate another bite. The speed-eater scarfed down 36 hot dogs.
The study found that the most striking difference between the two men was that the competitive eater’s stomach had an enormous capacity for stretching, and that the food that was eaten during the test stayed in the stomach, rather than being emptied into the intestines, said the study’s senior author, Dr. David Metz, a professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
The extent to which these traits are innate or can be improved with training is not entirely clear, but a majority of elite competitive eaters who have competed in the Nathan’s contest have improved over time. “Nobody gets worse,” Metz said.
This performance curve implies that the stomach muscles of competitive eaters may lose their ability to contract back to their original size, leaving them “with a big flaccid bag for a stomach,” he said. (That’s not the only safety concern — at least seven people have died from choking during an eating contest.)
A stretchy stomach doesn’t worry the 34-year-old Sudo, who said she trains by eating large-volume foods like soups, whole heads of broccoli and “enough kale to kill a horse.” Before this year’s competition, she split a meal of 90 hot dogs with her boyfriend, Nick Wehry, who is also a competitive eater. (He ate 39.5 hot dogs, nine fewer than she did, to place third at this year’s contest.) The couple also work out in the gym almost daily. “I’ve always done better when I go into a contest leaner and more fit,” Sudo said.
In the early days of the Nathan’s competition, the winner was usually an obese man, Smoliga said. But as records have fallen, winners have become more slender. One explanation for this, he said, is that extra fat tissue surrounding the stomach acts like a band that prevents it from stretching.
Despite using the same hot dogs and buns for 40 years, the Nathan’s contest has seen performance among elite competitors rise by about 700%. “No other sport comes close to that when records are measured in a 100-plus year span,” Smoliga said.
Although the meteoric rise in the hot dog record is remarkable, the pattern it follows is not, Joyner said. As an event becomes better known, “people start to train for it because there’s some kind of incentive, like fame or money,” he said. The competition pool becomes deeper, and new records are set.
If Smoliga’s prediction of 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes seems like a stretch, consider this: In Metz’s 2007 study, the speed eater had downed 36 hot dogs before the researchers terminated the simulated contest, worried that he might perforate his stomach. Thirteen years later, Chestnut ate more than two times as many hot dogs, which suggests that we probably won’t know the actual human limit until we reach it.