What the contents of one young competitive eater's stomach tell us about the great American tradition of eating to excess.
On the day of the big game, Joey Chestnut stepped up to the scale. He weighed in around 214 pounds. Ten minutes and 54 hot dogs later, Chestnut returned to the scales. He had just eaten the volume of a basketball and a third of the weight of a newborn Jersey cow. Doctors have found similar volumes of food in the stomachs of bulimics who ate themselves to death. What made Chestnut’s rapid weight gain so remarkable was not that he kept all 54 hot dogs down, but that he was still standing at all.
Eating competitions have been around since at least 1786—a boiled egg affair in New York—but Nathan’s Famous hot dogs traces the roots of its annual competition to 1916, when, as legend has it, a bunch of U.S. immigrants gobbled wieners in a patriotic showdown. Another 75 years would pass before Chestnut stepped onto the scales. What set the league of modern gurgitators in motion was the formation of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, a promotional organization created by George and Rick Shay 15 years ago. Eating competitions now range from calf brains and matzo balls to pickles and mayonnaise, but the ultimate in peristaltic revelry goes down on the Fourth of July at the Super Bowl of competitive eating at Coney Island. This year, women compete in a league of their own, so there will be not one, but two extreme eating bouts. They'll run back-to-back.
Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds, and you just happen to really like stuffing dozens of tubes of protein and watered-down buns down your esophagus. At some point—probably well before scarfing the week’s worth of calories that Joey Chestnut ate in 2010—you would start to gag. Even if you relaxed and got the dogs down, your stomach would become so acutely distended that it might rupture. If your stomach happened to be really elastic, it would still stretch so much that you’d look as if you were in your third trimester.
We know this because, in 2007, National Geographic produced an investigative special on competitive eating. The show paid Tim Janus, a competitive eater known as “Eater X,” to travel to Philadelphia to test his stomach. Janus was 29 years old and weighed 165 pounds. As a control, they found another guy, a 200-pound 35-year old who claimed to have a hearty appetite. Just for fun, we’ll call this guy Frank.
Dr. Marc Levine, a radiologist, put them both on a fluoroscopy table and asked them to ingest Boras, an effervescent agent, along with some high-density barium—standard procedure for anyone having some upper GI work done. That allowed the show's producers to watch real-time images as the two consumed hot dogs, also coated with barium. Levine admits the coating made the dogs less appetizing, but it was the only way to make them visible in the gut.
Frank submitted himself to examination first. Under the eye of the fluoroscope, Frank ate seven hot dogs. Then, he started feeling like you might feel if you had just scarfed seven hot dogs: He was full. The fluoroscopy confirmed the matter: His stomach was filled up. Janus went in next and started eating. He wasn’t slowing down, which made Levine worried. “We made him stop,” he told me. “We were watching the fluoroscope and we’re like, ‘We’ve seen how this works.’ I said to my colleague, David Metz, ‘If his stomach perforates, we’ll go down in history.’”
Levine has gone down in history—not for rupturing anyone’s stomach, but for publishing the only case study on competitive eating in the Journal of Roentgenology, which still makes his phone ring more than any cancer and diagnostic work he’s ever done. The study suggested that competitive eaters were able to accommodate so many hot dogs by expanding their minds as well as their stomachs. “He was basically able to overcome his satiety reflex,” Levine says. “When you or I eat that much, our brain tells us, ‘If we eat another bite, then we’ll barf it up.’ He told me this had taken a remarkable amount of willpower. It was an ‘athletic achievement.’”
Competitive eating is not a matter of size. It’s a matter of training your stomach to stretch and tricking your brain’s feeding control circuit—the system that sends out hunger signals and satiety signals—to let more stuff in. Normally, food settles in our stomach after a big meal and a couple glasses of wine and sends out chemical signals to the brain that tell us we’re done. As neuroscientist David J. Linden explains in The Compass of Pleasure, the circuit acts like a sort of faucet to control the flow of hunger and fullness.
Gurgitators have to train their brains to become less responsive to these messages, but here’s the thing: The rest of us could be inadvertently numbing our brains in much the same way. Chronic exposure to fatty, sugary foods can rewire the neural circuitry, which is hard to undo, Linden writes. That helps to explain why it’s difficult, if not impossible, to control your weight through willpower alone.
And despite our body’s remarkable ability for stomaching all sorts of things, the long-term consequences of competitive eating might end up looking a lot like end-stage diabetes. “One of the sacrifices you make in becoming a competitive eater is never getting full,” Levine told me. “So what happens when you’re 55, and you have the ability to consume all the ice cream or pizza in the world and never get full? How do you control yourself?”
Clearly, though, eating is about more than just biology—and the annual Fourth of July spectacle reflects some profound cultural truths about the way we consume food. Here's a parade of slender competitors, like Takeru Kobayashi and Sonya Thomas, who eat so much, so fast, and never seem to gain any weight. “There’s no explanation for it,” Adrienne Rose Johnson, a doctorate student at Stanford who’s written one of the few scholarly papers on the subject, collected in the forthcoming Making Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World, told me. “It’s like magic—a magical American myth. I think it speaks to people suffering from literal and symbolic consequences of consumerism.”
Whether or not you’ll be participating in the big gorge, it’s worth thinking about how an event that originated as a means for cultural assimilation plays into another enduring fantasy: Consuming without consequence. Frankly, that's just not possible. As Janus’ stomach suggests, the lingering effects of competitive eating lie just below the surface.
First x-ray image above shows an control subject's stomach after rapid ingestion of seven hot dogs. Bottom image shows a speed eater's stomach with 36 hot dogs. Images courtesy of Marc Levine via "Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences" ©2007 American Roentgen Ray Society.