In 1980, the hot-dog-eating champion at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest downed ten franks in as many minutes. This year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a world record by eating 75, besting his 2018 record by one.
The increase in human performance is unlike any other competition, but hot dog speed eaters might be approaching the limit, Jonathan Lambert reports for Science News. Using the mathematical formulas created to estimate peak athletic performance, High Point University physiologist James Smoliga calculates that a person can probably eat at most 83 hot dogs in ten minutes.
Smoliga’s idea to estimate the limits of speed eating is based on research into peak track and field performance, he tells Lucy Hicks of Science magazine. He applied the same equations to 39 years of hot dog eating records. The results were published on July 15 in Biology Letters.
“It’s a great paper,” Mayo Clinic physician Michael Joyner, who studies human performance, tells the New York Times’ Christie Aschwanden. As an event gains notoriety, “people start to train for it because there’s some kind of incentive, like fame or money,” he says.
As people begin to train, performance follows a common trend: competitors’ performance rises dramatically at first, and then improvements become more gradual as they approach the upper limits of what’s possible.
Miki Sudo, who set a women’s record this year by eating 48 and a half hot dogs, trains by eating high-volume foods. That means soups, heads of broccoli and “enough kale to kill a horse,” she tells the New York Times. Training like this stretches out the stomach bit by bit, like stretching out your earlobes by putting progressively larger earrings and gauges in an ear piercing, Smoliga tells Science magazine.
Over time, competitive eaters’ stomachs may lose the ability to return to their normal size. Instead, the stomach becomes “a big flaccid bag,” David Metz, gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells the New York Times.
The result is that competitive eating has seen records skyrocket at a rate unseen in other sports.
“We haven’t gotten twice as fast in the 100 meters or twice as fast in the marathon over 100 years,” Smoliga tells Science. “It doesn’t compare to anything else that we’ve seen in sports.”
But for people who haven’t trained to speed-eat, attempting to eat like Chestnut or Sudo would be dangerous. A study led by Metz in 2007 compared the stomach expansion of speed-eaters to people who hadn’t trained for the feat.
A competitive eater drank over a gallon of water in just two minutes, while the other study participant drank less than half a gallon, per Science. In another test, the control participant ate seven hot dogs and became nauseous, while the competitive eater ate three dozen. The researchers stopped him there, worried he might be injured, per the Times. Choking is another hazard during eating contests.
The new study also compared human speed eating skills to the eating rates of familiar carnivores. Smoliga found that, adjusted for body mass, competitive hot dog eaters can eat more in ten minutes than grizzly bears and coyotes. But gray wolves take the cake, capable of eating the equivalent of 11 hot dogs per minute.
“It’s nice to make a comparison amongst species, but I don’t know if it’s exactly the same,” animal nutritionist Annelies De Cuyper, of Ghent University in Belgium, tells the New York Times. The numbers used for wild animals comes from their normal behavior, but the speed eating stats are an unusual eating pattern. “If you put them all together in a contest, I don’t know who would win.”