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The July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest and the Dangers of Competitive Eating

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, a prime hot-dog-eating day for millions of Americans. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, on Independence Day Americans consume 150 million hot dogs—and none of them ate more than Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, the 230-pound, number-one-ranked competitive eater who yesterday was victorious for the fifth consecutive time at Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Chestnut downed 62 hot dogs in ten minutes—enough to take first prize, but still short of his record-setting 68 hot dogs in 2009. (Japan’s top competitive eater, Takeru Kobayashi, reportedly conquered that record yesterday by eating 69 hot dogs, but he skipped the competition due to a contract dispute with Major League Eating, making official recognition of his achievement unlikely.) Now, hot dogs are hardly a health food, and most people yesterday probably stopped after one or two. How could a person possibly eat 68 of them—and what kind of havoc does that wreak on the body?

According to a 2007 article in the American Journal of Roentgenology (a publication that focuses on medical studies which use radiology), competitive eaters train themselves to expand their stomachs, but at potentially severe cost to their health. Marc Levine, Geoffrey Spencer, Abass Alavi, and David Metz of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine devised a hot dog eating test for two subjects: a normal control subject and a world-class competitive eater. First, they examined the stomach of their control subject, who “began eating hot dogs one at a time as rapidly as possible.” “After eating a total of seven hot dogs,” they write, “the control indicated that he felt an uncomfortable sensation of fullness and satiety and that he would be ‘sick’ if he ate another bite, so this portion of the test was terminated.” Now, this is rarely true of academic studies, but the few following paragraphs are worth reading in full. The authors, awestruck by the competitive eater, report that he “began consuming hot dogs two at a time to facilitate rapid ingestion. It was truly remarkable how quickly he downed each pair of hot dogs without any noticeable letup during the test.” Despite their awe, the authors report that the sport poses serious health risks: Though their competitive eating subject exercised extreme self-control and was able to control his weight, competitive eating had destroyed his ability to feel full after a meal. “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,” the authors warn. This binge eating could result in morbid obesity, but that’s not the worst of it: “Even more worrisome,” they say, is the risk that the eater’s stomach could become “an enormous sac incapable of shrinking to its original size and incapable of peristalsing or emptying solid food,” which could lead to “intractable nausea and vomiting, necessitating a partial or total gastrectomy.” This risk leads the authors to conclude that competitive eating is “potentially self-destructive.” A warning to Joey Chestnut, then: It may be time forgo the glory of eating dozens of hot dogs and give someone else a chance to set the world record.