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The Science Behind Competitive Eating

How is it possible to eat 73 hotdogs in 10 minutes?

Nothing says USA like competitive eating! The Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is the most popular eating contest in the United States, occurring annually on July 4th. Each year, the event attracts over 40,000 spectators and is broadcasted on ESPN to nearly two million viewers. Joey Chestnut holds the world record for the most hot dogs eaten at the contest, at 73 hotdogs! How on earth is that possible?!

In order to absolutely stuff their stomachs to the brim with food, competitive eaters go through rigorous training leading up to the competition. Stomach elasticity is the key to competitive eating success, and some eaters train using a technique called "water loading", which involves chugging down one or two gallons of water very quickly. Competitors also consume great amounts of high-fiber, low-calorie food to stretch their stomachs to fit more food. A 2007 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that the stomachs of competitive eaters and normal eaters differed greatly. The competitive eater's stomach was described as a “massively distended food-filled sac occupying most of the upper abdomen.” Having a larger stomach allows competitive eaters to take down much more food and not get full as fast.

Besides stretching their stomach to increase its size, competitive eaters train themselves to suppress their gag reflexes. Chewing wastes time—so competitive eaters tend to swallow the food whole. The Nathan's competition prohibits drinking liquids, but allows participants to moisten the hotdogs with water to help prevent choking.

There is also the Belt of Fat Theory, which posits that those with a lower body fat percentage are more well positioned to win competitive eating contests. According to Wikipedia, "this is due to the eponymous 'belt of fat' around the midsections of competitors, made up of subcutaneous and visceral fat, which constricts rapid expansion of their stomachs." Less fat around the midsection means that one's stomach can more greatly expand.

Competitive eating is no joke. The activity can lead to stomach ruptures, permanently stretched stomach that leads to the loss of the ability to feel full, and gastroparesis (paralysis of the stomach), among other detrimental effects.


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