Last Fourth of July, Joey Chestnut broke his own world record by eating 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes during Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. For those keeping score, that amounts to a whopping 20,000 calories and about 2,164 milligrams of cholesterol. It’s an impressive feat, for sure, and one that’s literally hard to stomach.  How on earth can the human body possibly process that much food? Especially a body as relatively thin as Joey Chestnut’s. (Despite his career as a competitive eater, he only weighs about 230 pounds.)

The science that allows one stomach to contain enough hot dogs to feed a family reunion is truly fascinating. Normally the average person can eat about one liter of food before feeling like they overdid it on the cupcakes. It’s at this point when the satiety reflex kicks in and tells your brain that you’re full and, in some cases, triggers nausea and vomiting. Almost everyone has experienced this impulse at some point in their lives, but for professional competitor eaters, the satiety reflex is their mortal enemy—the one thing standing in their way of cramming six dozen sausages down their throat.

Pros like Chestnut actively work to overcome this reflex. Through rigorous training, which can involve fasting for up to three days before a competition, they can power through a biological impulse, pushing their body to extreme and—some might say—dangerous limits. During the course of last year’s hot dog-eating contest, Chestnut’s stomach likely stretched to contain over four and half liters of food. That’s over four times the normal capacity. To get a visual sense of just how insane this expansion is, check out this video ESPN created, in which they stuff nearly 70 hot dogs into an anatomically correct dummy.

During the course of the year, competitive eaters often practice stretching their stomachs by drinking gallons of water or milk very quickly, or eating massive amounts of high fiber foods like watermelon or oatmeal. Many actively train to build muscle, increase metabolism, and of course stretch their stomachs with healthy diets as well, mainly because some competitive eaters can no longer tell when their full given the larger capacities of this key digestive organ.

While very little research has been done on this actual phenomenon, one pivotal study was conducted by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and their findings are fascinating. Researchers compared the stomachs of two men, one was a professional competitive eater and the other wasn’t, after eating as many hot dogs as they could in 12 minutes. According to their report, which was published in the Journal of Roentgenology, the competitive eater’s stomach “appeared as a massively distended, food-filled sac occupying most of the upper abdomen.” And you thought your tummy bulged a lot after eating a jumbo-sized burrito.

There was also little to no gastric peristalsis. Normally the stomach involuntary constricts and the squeezing motion helps break down food, but it appears that reflex was also overcome by the competitive eater.

While the long-term impact of competitive binging has yet to be determined, the researchers came to this overall conclusion: “We speculate that professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy. Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior.”

Sure, it may sound alarmist at worst or obvious at best (did anyone really think competitive eating was good for you???), but it’s still interesting to hear medical professionals weigh in on this gloriously gluttonous sport. We may not be partaking in it anytime soon, but you can bet it won’t stop us from watching.

Related Video: Hot Dogs –What Are they?

Header image courtesy of Nathan's.

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