Food Week: The Need For Speed

A warning, courtesy National Geographic.

This post is part of The Raptor Lab’s Food Week. Read #jurassickitchen for more!

His nickname is The Tsunami.

Call him a gurgitator.  An epicuriator.  A gustatory athlete.

In 2001, on America’s birthday, Takeru Kobayashi celebrated by consuming 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes at the annual Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog eating contest.  (He’s also bested a bear.)

By 2006, he was legendary: six consecutive wins.  Three new world records.

The Tsunami had overtaken New York City.

Courtesy Michael.

Courtesy Michael.

But it wasn’t just hot dogs.  Hamburgers, wings, pasta, and just days ago, cupcakes (13 in one minute, plus a gallon of milk in 20 seconds).

And The Tsunami isn’t a big guy.  He’s 5’8″, but only 128 pounds, according to his Wikipedia page.

So how does he do it?

Turns out, he does it like almost anyone could – if they trained their body to do so.  It’s as simple as taking everything you’ve ever known about Jenny Craig’s way of life and throwing it out the window.

In other words: you just have to eat.

Marc Levine, lead author of the study Competitive Speed Eating; Truth and Consequences explained his research on a 35 year-old competitive male speed eater: “Every day when he got full, he would keep eating. He would force himself to keep eating when you and I would stop because we’re so full we’re sick. And he was sick too but he wouldn’t stop.”

Courtesy Tony Fischer.

Courtesy Tony Fischer.

Levine’s study came on the heels of a National Geographic documentary about speed eating that explores how people do it.  (There’s also Errol Morris’ classic El Wingador for a slightly different take.)

Levine found that while some speed eaters claimed to be born with the ability (or dare I say aptitude? Motivation?), most must train by ingesting everything from large amounts of cabbage to gallons and gallons of water.

Levine explained this altered his subject’s physiology:

“Normally your stomach has what’s called stomach peristalsis … which is the squeezing action of the stomach that breaks up the food.”  The speed eater didn’t have such action.  In fact, when Levine and Co. fed him hot dogs laced with barium and traced them with fluoroscopy, they found the hot dogs settled in and blew up the stomach disproportionately.

Normal Stomach

A normal stomach after 6 dogs (arrows signify hot dog chunks, yum)

Competitive Stomach

A competitive eater’s stomach after 30+ dogs

As the speed eater continued to eat, his stomach bulged out more and more until finally, after about 30 hot dogs, they pulled up his shirt and were somewhat aghast to find that he looked, as Levine said, “seven months pregnant.”

“Finally we had him stop after he took about 36 hot dogs.  Not because he wanted to stop,” but because the researchers decided they didn’t want to be the first to accidentally kill a food chomping champion in the lab.

Courtesy TheCulinaryGeek.

Courtesy TheCulinaryGeek.

The reason he didn’t need to stop, and perhaps why competitive speed eating contests are won by amount per given time (instead of simply amount), is that really good eaters have overcome their satiety reflex – the feeling that tells you, rather wisely, you’ve eaten too much ice cream today.

“He no longer ever gets full,” explained Levine.  Instead, when he was forced to eat normal meals on a daily basis, the speed eater would load up his plate with what looked like a normal amount of food, eat it, and then stop.  He would continue to be hungry, but he wouldn’t continue to eat.

The paper’s conclusion recommends the International Federation of Competitive Eating (recently renamed to Major League Eating) watch out for its athletes:

“It is easy to envision a scenario in which aging speed eaters lose their willpower and engage in chronic binge eating because they never feel sated.”

So while the glory of competitive eating may sound fulfilling, it comes at the price of emptiness.

Levine, M.S., Spencer, G., Alavi, A., & Metz, D.C. (2007). Competitive speed eating: Truth and consequences. American Journal of Roentgenology. 189: 681-686.

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