Earlier this month, those among us who thought that humanity had already hit its peak got a reminder that we’re still on an upward slope. At the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Joey Chestnut and Miki Sudo shattered the men’s and women’s world records by eating 75 and 48.5 hotdogs, respectively, in 10 minutes.
Such feats may seem like a sideshow, but human progress in hot dog eating is the topic of serious academic scrutiny in the current issue of Biology Letters, a journal published by Britain’s venerable Royal Society. By applying sophisticated mathematical analysis to four decades of data from the Nathan’s contest, James Smoliga, a physiology professor at High Point University in North Carolina, extracts general insights about the nature of limits, as well as an estimate of our theoretical ultimate hot dog capacity.
The central observation in Smoliga’s paper is an S-shaped curve showing the progress of the record since the contest started in 1980, similar to curves seen in sports such as cycling, swimming and track and field.
For the first two decades, the winners averaged a modest one to two hot dogs per minute. Then, starting in 2001, the curve shot upward as the contest became more prestigious and lucrative. Technical innovations such as Takeru Kobayashi’s “Solomon method,” which involves splitting the wiener and eating both halves in parallel while dunking the bun in water, also fuelled progress – the hot dog equivalent of a new aerodynamic speedsuit.
But since around 2010, the curve has levelled off once again, this time at around seven dogs a minute, raising the question of whether we’re approaching fundamental human limits of gluttony.
Last year, Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer and his colleagues published an analysis of extreme feats of endurance, and suggested that our limits in such challenges are ultimately constrained by our ability to consume calories. Whether you’re running across North America, trekking to the South Pole, or gestating and breast-feeding a baby, you can only take in a limited amount of food – about 2.5 times your resting metabolism, according to Pontzer’s analysis.
For most people, that works out to a max of about 4,000 calories a day. Tour de France cyclists reportedly scarf down 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. Chestnut ate 22,000 calories in one sitting. So what gives?
The presence of food in your stomach and digestive tract triggers a cascade of neural and hormonal signals that tell you to stop eating, Smoliga explains. If you try to push beyond satiety, you’ll feel intense nausea and discomfort long before your stomach is stretched to its limit.
But competitive eaters such as Chestnut have stretched their stomachs so often that these signals no longer seem to apply. “After having 70 hot dogs, he’s still eating more as fast as he can,” Smoliga says. “My guess is that his stomach still has room to expand, and the only thing holding him back is how quickly he can get them in.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Chestnut is actually processing 22,000 calories worth of food in one day. It may be that the bolus of hot dogs takes several days to digest – or, perhaps more likely, that much of it passes through the system without being digested at all. That’s the impression you get from an online Q&A with Canadian competitive eater Peter Czerwinski, better known as Furious Pete.
“The toilet bowl gets full, and it gets to the point where it starts to overflow,” he says, illustrating the post-contest carnage by piling marshmallows into a brimming bowl.
Still, even if it’s not all digested, it seems likely that competitive eaters are able to shatter what otherwise seems like a firm upper limit on our caloric intake. “That could be coveted information for more traditional athletes,” Pontzer says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Maybe they should start shotgunning hot dogs mid-race.”
As for the future, Smoliga’s analysis suggests that Chestnut may be able to bump his record up a bit more. Using a mathematical technique called extreme value analysis, he predicts a human limit of about 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes. But there’s one caveat.
“In the 40 years of Nathan’s contest data that I used, there have been some very big men. But none have been 7-foot-plus NBA types,” he says. “If any true giants decided to seriously train for the competition … I think they could eclipse Chestnut and approach or even exceed that biological limit.”
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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