James Smoliga, a physical therapist at High Point University, watched Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest last year. He then turned to computer modeling to figure out the maximum number of wieners that someone could wolf down in 10 minutes—the length of the competition.
While this might sound like silly science, Smoliga’s work was published in the journal Biology Letters. The paper describes the benefit of doing this analysis as a way of studying human potential.
“The maximal limits of human performance are a perpetually interesting, interdisciplinary topic of scientific discourse,” writes Smoliga. “Digestive system capacity is not typically explored as a measure of human performance, but the ability to consume and digest large quantities of food is advantageous if resource availability is unpredictable (i.e., predator-prey interactions, carrion acquisition). Additionally, the ability to rapidly ingest large quantities of food (i.e., time-minimizing eating behaviors) may be advantageous under certain conditions (e.g., conspecific or heterospecific competition, food scarcity).”
To arrive at his final figure (don’t worry, it’s coming soon), Smoliga used the same computer model that he’s applied in determining maximum performance in other sports. He fed the model 39 years worth of data from the competition and, while doing so, realized that the number of hot dogs people could eat had grown dramatically over time. In the early years of the competition, people hovered around 12 hot dogs in 10 minutes. But at this year’s food fest, the winner, Joey Chestnut, devoured a (kind of) awe-inspiring 74 hot dogs. (Sidenote: Chestnut has also won competitions in which he’s eaten 182 chicken wings in 30 minutes; 53 Taco Bell soft beef tacos in 10 minutes; 55 glazed donuts in 8 minutes; and 121 Twinkies in 6 minutes.)
The reason for the improved records, Smoliga argues in his paper, is due to gut plasticity—or the ability for the human digestive system to be able to take in more food over time due to training, much in the same way training improves any athletic performance.
“Though often perceived as an entertaining spectacle of gluttony, nearly four decades of data from the event provide insight into the limits of human gut capacity and its intra-individual plasticity,” said Smoliga. “I use previously established mathematical models to determine how many hot dogs a human can rapidly consume and demonstrate that this is owing to plasticity in gut capacity (i.e., a training effect).”
So, did Chestnut max out the upper limit of human hotdog devouring? Not quite, says Smoliga, who believes there is room for improvement. His model shows that with the proper training, a person should be able to eat 84 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
The Nathan’s competition is held every year on July 4, so if you want to take the title, there’s still plenty of time to start training.