The science behind competitive eating

Hot-dog champion Joey Chestnut. Picture: A Katz/Shutterstock
Hot-dog champion Joey Chestnut. Picture: A Katz/Shutterstock

I'M constantly amazed by how much my kid can eat. He's only little, but he sure can pack it away. However, even for him the idea of eating 75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes would be a bit much. But that's the current eating record, set in 2020 by Joey Chestnut.

If you can think of a food, then someone has probably set a record for eating the most of it.

There's records for chicken nuggets (80 in five minutes) and for grapes (eight pounds in 10 minutes).

If hard boiled eggs are your thing, then you'd need to eat more than 141 in eight minutes to take the record.

But how do these record-setters do it? How is it physiologically possible to eat so much so fast?

The human stomach is an amazing thing. When emptied, it's roughly the size of your two fists, with a volume of about a litre.

It's also extremely elastic, and can stretch to hold a lot more. This elasticity is one of the keys to competitive eating success.

Professional eaters "train" their stomachs to expand further - often by drinking large volumes of water or lots of low-calorie foods (think masses of salad!).

It's estimated that Chestnut's stomach would have expanded to hold around four litres during his hot-dog eating record.

It's also probably why most competitive eaters aren't, as you might expect, overweight. Too much abdominal fat would make it more difficult for that stomach to stretch.

Competitive eaters also need to overcome the satiety reflex - that thing that makes you feel full.

When our stomach expand they send a message to our brains telling us to stop eating. Ignore this and you'll probably feel nauseous and vomit.

Again training comes into play - by practicing stretching their stomachs the pros can learn to overcome this reflex. Having an elastic stomach means you can hold a lot of food - but first you have to be able to get it there quickly.

Competitive eaters train by chewing and lifting weights, aiming to build their jaw and neck muscles to be able to cram food in as fast as possible.

While my kid might be a big eater naturally, competitive eaters really do put in some serious training to make the most of their physiology.

I'm not sure he's quite ready for that - but I think he'd have a good crack at that chicken nugget eating record given the chance.

Dr Mary McMillan is a senior lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England.

This story The science behind competitive eating first appeared on The Canberra Times.