Scientists Determine Human Limit for Hot Dog Consumption

In Thursday’s Hot Clicks: a scientific study on the Nathan’s hot dog contest, a frantic soccer match and more.
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Joey Chestnut is nearly a perfect eating machine

The Nathan’s hot dog eating contest world record has been broken a whopping 11 times in the past 20 years. In 2000, Kazutoyo Arai set a new record with 25 hot dogs and buns (HDB) consumed, only to have Takeru Kobayashi shatter that mark with 50 the following year. The high water mark (or maybe the high sodium mark) now stands at 75 HDB after Joey Chestnut’s 13th win earlier this month. 

After winning with 66 HDB in 2007, Chestnut has slowly increased his total nearly every year, giving the impression that there’s no limit to what he can fit in his gut. But there is a limit, of course, and science has found what it is. 

A new paper published this week by High Point University professor Dr. James M. Smoliga, based on an analysis of 39 years of Nathan’s contest data, pegs the theoretical human cap on tubular meat consumption at 83 hot dogs and buns—just eight away from what Chestnut put away this year.

The paper, “Modelling the maximal active consumption rate and its plasticity in humans—perspectives from hot dog eating competitions,” concludes that the maximum rate of consumption for humans is 832 grams per minute, higher than that of grizzly bears (798 grams per minute) but lower than grey wolves (1,119 grams per minute). That works out to about 83 hot dogs in the contest’s current 10-minute time limit. 

That’s an unconscionable number of franks to eat in just a few minutes, which goes to show just how impressive competitive eaters are. Smoliga compares hot dog contest participants to elite marathon runners. An average runner’s marathon time is about half as fast as an elite runner’s. Highly trained competitive eaters are able to eat as much as five times more than an untrained person. 

“The feats of elite competitive eaters are quite biologically impressive when placed in the context of other sports competitions,” Smoliga wrote.

As a professor in biomechanics and physiology, Smoliga wasn’t simply interested in how many hot dogs a person can eat but also how it’s possible. 

It all comes down to “extreme digestive plasticity” (how stretchy a person’s stomach is), which “suggests that eating competition records are quite biologically impressive.”

A normal person couldn’t hope to do what Chestnut does (or his his female counterpart Miki Sudo) simply because they haven’t trained their stomach to expand like a balloon. Competitive eaters, meanwhile, could probably choke down more than 83 dogs if not for the 10-minute time limit. 

“The ordinary person would probably run into a stomach capacity issue,” Smoliga told CNN. “But competitive eaters specifically train to expand their stomachs, so for top competitive eaters, it's probably more the chewing and eating within a time frame that limits it.”

Without a separate study, it’s impossible to say whether 36-year-old Joey Chestnut is still in his eating prime, but he’s still a young man who keeps breaking records. With any luck, we’ll get to see him chase that supposed limit of 83 HDB.

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