Friday Weird Science: the science of speed-eating

Jul 26 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

With every 4th of July, there are various 4th of July traditions. Fireworks. Barbeques. Concerts. And, of course speed-eating.

What, you guys don't attempt to pour down 24 hotdogs in 10 minutes?! Where is your PATRIOTISM?!



Regardless of what this may or may not say about our country, hearing about these things makes you wonder: how do they DO it?

Levine et al. "Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences" AJR, 2007.

Apparently the real start of competitive speed eating (Romans and whether they may or may not have used vomitoriums aside), was in 1916, when Nathan's Hotdogs hosted the first 4th of July hot dog eating contest on Coney Island. Since then, there's been competitive speed eating (though I have to imagine people did this at county fairs long before). Speed eaters have official titles, like "gutatory athlete", "gurgitator" (that sounds really gross), and "epicuriators". There is now an INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION of Competitive Eating.

And these guys can eat a TON. One champion, Takeru Kobayashi, consumed 54 hotdogs (and buns) in 12 minutes. That's an average of 4.5 hotdogs PER MINUTE (a hotdog every 13 seconds), and, at 309 calories per hotdog, is a total of 16,686 calories. The mind boggles. The guy is apparently also a specialist (and record holder) for brats, rice balls, and...cow brains. Because he CAN BE.

As the authors of the paper note, people who eat competitively aren't really in a contact sport (though take a moment and imagine...), and so aren't at risk for injury like football players, say. But still, distending your stomach like that (you basically have to to fit 54 hot dogs), doesn't really seem safe. Is it? How do you find out? Science, of course!

The authors compared a competitive speed eater (who was apparently in town to film a documentary) to a control subject during a speed eating test, using a gastrointestinal fluoroscope. It be noted that the control "had a hearty appetite", and was bigger than the speed-eater by about 4 inches and 45 lbs. I wonder if he did it on a bet.

How do speed eaters become champions? Well, you have to expand the stomach. Some say they eat TONS of cabbage (cabbage soup diet anyone?). Others use water to build up volume. I begin to wonder if these poor people ever feel full after they've trained up, if they just deal with this huge stomach and being hungry all the time. I'm sure the whole thing has to throw your hunger hormones for a loop. I would love to see data on that.

In this case, for testing purposes, the authors of the study decided to use water loading. They compared the amount of water the two people could drink either in 5 minutes, or until they felt full. The first test was terminated in under two minutes, to stop the poor control from hurting himself. He drank 2 liters, more than average, certainly, but the speed eater had put away 4.5 liters and showed no signs of stopping. When they had them drink to the point they felt full, same results. 2 liters vs 4.5, and no sign of fullness from the speed eater.

Why can the speed eater hold so much more? Is he holding more food? Emptying it faster? To test this, the scientists gave the speed eater and the control radioactive meals (mmmmm, tastes like uranium! No, actually the amounts of radioactive material are very small), and used a scanner to see how fast the radioactive material was emptied from the stomach into the small intestine. The normal rate for this is about 50% of a filling meal will be emptied from the stomach in the two hours after eating. The control had a master stomach than usual and emptied about 75%, but the speed eater? Only 25%! Why? Well, if he was a speed eater by virtue of having a speedy metabolism, that number would be much higher. Because that number is low, it indicates that really, he's got a BIG stomach, much larger than normal, which them empties slower than normal. He was never full enough from the standard meal for normal emptying to take place.

But to really take a look, they have to image the stomach. Time for an eating contest. They had both subjects eat as many hot dogs as they could in 12 minutes. Sadly, they had them eat them WITHOUT buns. Speed eaters usually dip the buns in water to facilitate swallowing, and they were afraid that the excessive water would mess up the stomach image. Dry dogs for science.

Before stuffing themselves with mystery meat, the two subjects had the interiors of their stomach coated in barium, which would allow the authors to see how the hotdogs were sitting in the stomach afterward.


Here's the before shot for the control stomach. You can see the stomach (the grey bag at center), looking grey and kind of empty.


And here's the stomach after the hot dog test. You can see the control guy's stomach was distended a little by all the hot dogs, the arrows point to the grey bulges where the barium shows evidence of hot dog chunks. Yum.

And how many hot dogs was it? Only 7! Poor guy(though part of me says I bet I could've done better). He said he had to stop or he'd be sick.

But what about the speed eater?


You'll notice his stomach looks a little different. It's kind of...floppier looking (the scientists used the term "mild distention"). Then he started eating hot dogs. Two at a time. For speed, you know. After 10 minutes? THIRTY SIX hot dogs. And he looked like this.

WOW. His stomach was huge, taking up most of his upper abdomen, and massively full of hot dogs. When asked how he felt? He said he wasn't even all that full, and in no discomfort. When he lifted up his shirt, the authors noted that:

When the speed eater lifted his shirt afterward,
his previously flat abdomen protruded
enough to create the distinct impression of a
developing intrauterine pregnancy.

Impressive. The speed eater noted that usually he didn't eat anything for several days after competition, and his stomach would go back to flat. Like a giant boa constrictor. With hot dogs.

So competitive speed eaters are able to eat it all by working hard to distend their stomachs, creating huge floppy sacks that can hold far more food than you might suppose. This is probably better than the other option, where the speed eater's stomach would empty much faster into the intestine (which might create some VERY interesting scenes at speed eating competitions).

Of course, if you ask competitive speed eaters what allows them to do what they do, most will say that they've always been able to eat a lot, but that they trained to get better. Had a natural talent, etc. So I'd be interested to see if they could get a couple of people who wanted to become speed eaters, and watched them through training. What stomach does it take to become a champion? The speed eater told them that he spent several years forcing himself to eat food past the point of satiety, to expand his stomach to where he was now. Outside of competition, he only ate carefully measured portions of food (and, the speed eater said, he never really felt full). The authors note that this takes willpower, like other kinds of athlete. I would mostly think it takes a high tolerance for nausea, and on the other end, for hunger.

And now, we know what it takes to be a competitive speed eater. Somehow, the ability to eat up to 54 hot dogs has lost its appeal.

Levine et al. "Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences" AJR, 2007.

One response so far

  • axon10k says:

    I remember seeing a documentary on Takeru Kobayashi. They said that in addition to his training he has a natural advantage: his stomach is located at a lower position than usual (a condition called gastroptosis), so it can expand larger than normal without being constrained by the ribs. According to wikipedia this is more common in women than men and can have some negative side effects. I wonder how common this is in competitive eaters and how much of an advantage it really gives.

    I couldn't find the original source for this but here is a reference that mentions this:

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