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Bloated But Loaded: Is A Competitive Eating Career Worth Stomaching?

Vocativ speaks to the world's top competitive eaters ahead of Nathan’s Famous Fourth Of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Saturday

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Contestants Joey Chestnut (L) and Matt Stonie — REUTERS
Jul 02, 2015 at 5:58 AM ET

To the regular-sized portion eater, the idea of power-munching as many hot dogs as you possibly can inside of 10 minutes sounds pretty disgusting. But even someone who believes that such an undertaking represents everything wrong with western overindulgence may be impressed to discover that the world record stands at 69 hot dogs—white breaded buns and questionable meat included.

A few dozen people on Saturday will try to break that record, held by the world’s number one competitive eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, at the World Famous Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The annual Fourth of July weekend event on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, is responsible for popularizing what is now considered a legitimate sport, and it’s an argument fans can easily support thanks to its impressive viewership—last year’s competition boasts a 2.78 million viewership on ESPN, the highest ever, although this was partly thanks to a lead-in from the World Cup.

“The competitors are some of the best athletes practicing in any sport anywhere,” said Richard Shea, president of Major League Eating, the world body that overseas all eating contests. It’s hardly a modest claim, but Shea’s language reflects the sort of pageantry that’s increasingly come bundled with the contest since it kicked off in the early 1970s—or in 1916, if you believe the legend about the four immigrants who couldn’t agree on who was most patriotic, but could agree on having an epic dining session at the newly-opened Nathan’s to settle the score. The day before each year’s competition, there’s a public weigh-in with the city mayor, and on the morning of the main event, competitors arrive on Coney Island aboard the “bus of champions”. In 2013, eight-time record holder Chestnut was escorted to the stage on a chair in a fashion historically reserved for royalty.

Certainly, there’s truth to Nathan’s “famous” claim. Its popularity has spawned a fully-fledged U.S. circuit of regulated competitive eating contests since the early 2000s, which means anyone who thinks they have what it takes at the hot dog stand must be just as adept at consuming everything from oysters, to chicken wings, to sweet corn, to Twinkies, if they want to go pro. Chestnut, 31, from Vallejo, California says: “I have a civil engineering degree, but now I just travel around the world and eat. I’ve been really lucky, and I’m just a goofy guy who loves to eat and win.” He makes it sound like a pastime, but what will likely infuriate many an office drone is that Chestnut has turned overeating into a full time career. Data from EatFeats.com suggests he has earned at least $458,850 in the last decade, not including appearance fees and other media earnings. Naturally, Nathan’s offers the biggest payout, at $10,000 for first place, but dozens of other competitions also hand over healthy sums to winners—like Connecticut’s Foxwoods World Turkey Eating Championship, at which Chestnut banked $5,000 last November.

It’s not surprising that Matthew Stonie, who rose to the world’s number two spot within six years of competing, hopes to overtake Chestnut in Saturday’s contest. Stonie, who is from San Jose, California, has earned as much as $81,075 so far, and least year came second at Nathan’s, consuming 56 hot dogs. “If there is any year to beat Joey, this is my best chance,” Stonie tells Vocativ. “Joey is an amazing competitor, but no one can stay on top forever.” The 23-year-old pegs his success down to sheer preparation: About a month before a major event, Stonie mimics contest scenarios at home in an effort to train his body to intake as much food as is humanly possible.

“Your body can adapt to amazing things. Running a marathon, people can’t do that their first time, but they build up to it. When I first started doing this I could do 20 hot dogs, and now when I do 60 it feels about the same.” Chestnut tells FOX6 WakeUp. But for every astonished viewer and deserved financial reward, there is no escaping the fact that eating several days worth of calories in a few short minutes does not fall under what nutritionists would consider a normal meal.

“It can be quite damaging, especially for someone who doesn’t know their stomach capacity,” spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and New York-based dietician Marjorie Nolan Cohn warns. “There are any number of gastrointestinal side-effects, such as stomach pains, acid reflux, constipation and dumping syndrome, a severe form of diarrhea which can cause dehyrdration. If someone is competitive eating on a regular basis, it is certainly going to contribute to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.”

Indeed, in a country where more than one third of adults are obese, running up an estimated medical bill of $147 billion in 2008, competitive eating competitions and those who take part in them could be considered to be fueling the nation’s dysfunctional relationship with food.

None of the competitors ranked in Major League Eating’s top ten appear massively overweight—and most insist that their competitive eating career has actually improved their relationship with food. Miki Sudo, who is ranked the world’s top female competitor, says that when she’s not eating 104 hardboiled eggs in eight minutes, or 8.5 pounds of kimchi in six minutes, she maintains an extremely regimented diet—even if she admits she doesn’t eat for at least two days before a major event. “Because I grew up in Japan, I was raised on a pretty healthy, natural diet, so that’s kind of stuck with me over the years. And competitive eating has only encouraged me to be healthier so that I can compete at my best,” the 29-year-old tells Vocativ.

Then again, all the salads and kale smoothies in the world will not undo the fact that food has to be digested. Sudo is reluctant to discuss the finer details of what eating 34 hot dogs in one sitting did to her gastrointestinal tract at last year’s contest, but Stonie is more descriptive. “Everyone has eaten a little more than they should have at least some point in their life, and knows how it feels. Multiply that times ten.” Stonie says this made his first few years of competing “miserable,” but adds: “Over time, the body adapts to it. I’ve developed a routine involving lots of water and vitamins that help with the digestion.”

A 2007 study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discovered it is possible to train oneself to intake large volumes of food, and that top eaters can develop altered levels of a stomach hormone which helps control food cravings, or simply stop responding to that hormone. But it also found that regular competitors no longer enjoy food in the same way as a person who consumes regular portions does. It concluded that “professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy”.

Stonie admits that the effects of competitive eating on the human body limits the length of one’s career. Like Sudo, he has a YouTube channel, and is hoping to build a career in the entertainment business, but he knows the chances of that happening are directly related to his success at the dinner plate. “Right now, my focus is on winning contests and taking the number one spot from Joey Chestnut,” he says.

Read more:

7 Fast Foods Even Less Healthy Than Hot Dog Pizza (Vocativ)
Obesity Is Just A Weekly Splurge Away (Vocativ)