On the Fourth of July, as they have done for years, renowned competitive eaters descended on New York City to compete in the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The event was a bit different this year, of course, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Only 10 people competed, and there was no live audience. But Joey “Jaws” Chestnut still managed to set a world record, scarfing down 75 hot dogs (buns included) in 10 minutes.
Surprisingly—and perhaps a bit horrifyingly—he could have eaten a few more. In a new study, a researcher calculates that a human could theoretically devour 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes—a rate of consumption similar to that of a grizzly bear chowing down on animal flesh.
James Smoliga came up with the idea for the study while reading about research on track and field performance. Scientists have tried to estimate human limits for athletic events such as the marathon or 100-yard dash using data from past record holders, says Smoliga, a physiologist at High Point University. While reading a paper on the limits of human running speed, he thought, “I bet the hot dog competition is similar to this.”
Smoliga turned to a mathematical model created by Mark Denny, a biologist at Stanford University. Denny used the model to estimate the maximum possible running speeds of dogs, horses, and humans. By finding a mathematical function that fits data points from past world records in a certain event (in this case, hot dog eating) over time, Denny says, one can then predict performance limits in that event.
Thankfully for Smoliga, competitive eating enthusiasts have diligently documented their feats over the years. Combining those self-collected data points with information from the Nathan’s Famous website, he pulled together 39 years of data, ending in 2019. (Though the contest began in 1972, consistent competition times of 10 to 12 minutes began in the early ’80s.)
The winning number of hot dogs has ballooned, Smoliga found, from 10 in 1980 to a gargantuan 74 in 2018–the previous record, also held by Chestnut. “We haven’t gotten twice as fast in the 100 meters or twice as fast in the marathon over 100 years,” Smoliga says. “It doesn’t compare to anything else that we’ve seen in sports.”
These skyrocketing numbers are likely due to competitors stepping up their training, he says, by practicing downing large amounts of food or water in a limited time. The goal is to train the stomach to relax and rapidly stretch, allowing these professional eaters to “take in this enormous volume that most people can’t,” says David Metz, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
In 2007, Metz documented this impressive (or appalling) stomach expansion in a competitive eater. In one test, a competitive eater guzzled 4.5 liters of water in just 2 minutes, whereas a person with no competitive eating experience drank less than 2 liters.
While shaving off one-tenth of a second in the 100-meter dash depends on complex processes in the cardiovascular, muscular, and skeletal systems, stretching one’s stomach is simpler, Smoliga says. (He compares it to using progressively larger earrings to slowly expand earlobes, though the stomach can more easily contract back to its normal size.) That could explain the rapid increase in winning hot dog counts in a relatively short time.
And there’s still room for improvement, Smoliga found. According to his calculations, a human being should be able to swallow up to 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes, he reports today in Biology Letters.
Denny cautions, however, that math alone isn’t enough because equations do not account for physiological factors. In particular, Metz adds, research is slim on the physiology of competitive eaters, so there are still many unknowns, including the maximum capacity of the human stomach.
And he cautions the public not to try to find out for themselves. An amateur eater could suffer serious health consequences trying to ingest a humongous volume, he warns, potentially choking or rupturing their stomach. Simply put, he says, “They shouldn’t try this at home.”