Eating Contests and the Human Body

On the 4th of July, its been a tradition since 1918 to hold the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship in Coney Island, NY. During this event, the scrawny and the portly from all over the world compete for the Mustard Belt. This belt is, of course, bestowed upon the person who can eat the most hot dogs (buns too) in 12 minutes flat. How are some people able to devour all that food and not get full or puke? (More beyond the fold.)

If you know ANYTHING at all about the eating contest circuit, you know who Kobayashi is. Besides being a 132 lb 5'6 Japanese kid, he's the 6-time winner of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship, he also holds the record for cow brains (17.7 lbs in 15 min), Krystal hamburgers (69 in 8 minutes) and rice balls (20 lbs in 30 min). In fact, the only contest he ever LOST was to a 1089-pound Kodiak bear, eating 31 bunless hot dogs in 2 minutes and 36 seconds to the bear's 50.


For the past five years, Takeru Kobayashi has won the Fourth of July contest. In 2004, Kobayashi broke his own world record by downing 53 and ½ Nathan's Famous hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. This year (2006) he bested his own record, winning the title once again with 53 and 3/4 hot dogs.

Competitive eaters are not allowed to vomit during the competition, at least if the vomit leaves the mouth (yuck.) There are quite a few techniques contestants use: from stretching out their stomachs with water the days before, to breaking the food into pieces and swallowing it all, to dipping the bread in water or soda to compact it. Some wiggle and shake to get the food down their esophagus, and I saw Kobayashi actually physically push on his stomach to compress the food down into it, making room for more. In addition, NPR noted that fit eaters do better than fat eaters. This may be due to the ring of fat that surrounds the middle of overweight people, which doesn't allow the stomach to expand to the size that it potentially could.

So, any health risks here? Well, first off the calories taken in during a contest are huge, Estimating 150 calories per dog and 100 calories per bun, Kobayashi consumed 13,500 calories yesterday. (As a point of reference, the USDA recommended caloric intake for an adult male is about 2,300 calories.) Many competitors don't allow their bodies to digest all the food, and vomit it after the contest.

In addition, nearly every contestant remarked that they hit an "8 minute wall." Essentially, that after 8 minutes of constant eating, they felt full and fatigued. Their eating rate slowed, and the tendancy to vomit rose. Although the regulation of appetite is complex, one neurotransmitter important in appetite control is serotonin. In fact, just the sight, smell or expectation of food stimulates serotonin release in the hypothalamus.Then, as you begin to eat, serotonin levels continues to rise, until it registers in the hypothalamus as the experience of satisfaction or satiety. This is one of the major components of feeling "full" after a meal (along with stretch receptors in the stomach, etc.). Another signal is from the vagus nerve to the brainstem, which then travels to the hypothalamus. I'm not sure how long it takes the stomach to signal via the vagus to the hypothalamus that its "full," but I wouldn't be surprised if it was about 8 minutes, similar to the timing of the "8 minute wall."

And, to satisfy the curious:

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Very interesting and informative, Shelley. Maybe now I'll buy you those serotonin earrings you've been longing for (though I know you're a closet dopamine fan). Serotonin earrings...Hmph!

By the way...somebody needs to tell Oleg Zhornitskiy that I WAS in fact able to down that 5th 32-ounze bowl of mayo last month! I shall NOT go unnoticed!

Lastly, for now, Shell--I was thinking about, juuusssst thinking about whether or not to try to break the current record for the most number of ketchup packets sucked down in 5 minutes. The current record is only 9--I think I could beat it. Whaddya say?? Should I go for it??? Mmmmmmmmm....ketchup!!