Thursday, 20 November 2014
How Do Competitive Eaters Stay Fit? And Other Pressing Questions
You may feel like you’re stuffing your face with a ridiculous amount of hot dogs tomorrow, but 17 men and 13 women will actually set out to eat as many as possible in 10 minutes for the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest this Fourth of July (last year’s male winner ate 69 hot dogs, and last year’s female winner gobbled up just under 37). Michelle Lesco, a 5’ 4,” 115-pound woman, ate 27.5 hot dogs to come in third place in the women’s division last year—and she’ll be back again this year for another shot at the top prize: $10,000 and a championship belt.
Michelle got into competitive eating a few years ago, after nailing a series of food challenges at local restaurants in her home state of Arizona (she even demolished a three-pound burger!). The now-30-year-old decided to sign up for her first official competition on a whim: a qualifying event for the 2011 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. She ended up eating 20.5 hot dogs (the remaining half actually rolled off of her plate!). The feat earned Michelle second place; she beat all but one of the people at the table (including the guys) and scored a free trip to New York City for the official competition that year. “I beat some people who had been doing it for a long time and realized I liked winning,” she says.
Michelle admits that she was a little embarrassed when people first started learning about her unique sport, but she still continued with competitive eating since she enjoys it. Now, Michelle competes in an average of eight events a year—and she’s eaten everything from Indian tacos to corn on the cob for sport. She even beat the champion male eater Joey Chestnut in a ribs-eating contest in Chicago once.
Granted, it may seem a little odd to call competitive eating a sport. After all, each hot dog (including the bun, which participants are required to eat), comes in at about 260 calories—which means that Michelle can and does consume more than 5,300 calories in a single sitting on contest day. So how exactly can a woman so small eat so much? And how can she do it without gaining a ton of weight or dying from a heart attack? We talked to the experts—including Michelle herself—about how competitive eaters train, stay healthy, and keep their weight in check.
How do competitive eaters fit all of that food into their bodies?Nope, their stomachs aren’t just naturally stretchy. Michelle says some of her ability to eat mass quantities of food comes naturally but that she also trains for competitive eating events about a week beforehand by doing a “practice run” with the foods she’ll be eating during the competition. This helps her find the most effective technique for gobbling them up quickly. For example, with hot dogs, she’ll try to eat the meat in four bites and dip the empty bun water to help it go down easier.
On training days, Michelle has a very intense diet designed for maximum stomach stretch. Depending on the day, she'll scarf down one of the following foods in a couple of minutes to practice: a gallon of water or chocolate milk, about one-third of a “Costco-sized” canister of oatmeal, a whole medium watermelon, four packs of Ramen noodles with extra water and two packs of seasoning, or two two-liters of soda. Depending on how much stomach capacity the competition requires, Michelle “trains” for up to 10 days beforehand. Michelle says that stretching out her belly with this technique helps the food go down like “pouring sand into a bucket instead of into a deflated balloon.”
This kind of training is common for competitive eaters like Michelle, says David Metz, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studied how competitive eaters are able to ingest so much food. He says many train by drinking water and eating tons of filling, low-calorie foods to “teach” their stomachs to expand.
In the 14 to 16 hours leading up to the competition, Michelle says she’ll stop eating and start drinking lots of water to keep her stomach stretched. When the big moment is just eight hours away, she says that she begins drinking less water so her belly has room for all of the food she plans to put in it. Then it’s game time.
What is it really like to eat 28 hot dogs? Michelle says she has to be mentally focused for the entirety of those 10 minutes of competition: The whole time, she’s ripping the food apart, shoving it into her mouth, throwing her head back, and jumping up and down to pack it all into her belly. She says this jumping is key so that the food doesn’t start to pile up and feel like it’s moving up into her esophagus. (Yikes!)
When the competition is over, Michelle says she feels like she’s eaten three Thanksgiving dinners. And that’s actually not the worst part, she says. What really grosses her out is having a mouth full of hot dog grease. “When you have that many hot dogs in your mouth, it just gets coated in grease and can actually make you feel sicker,” she says. Beside the hot dog mouth and insanely full feeling, Michelle says that she also gets super tired following competitions. “My body is like, ‘What did you do to me?’” With salty foods like hot dogs, she says that she feels super bloated the day after competing. But with other foods like wings or ribs, she’s ready to eat again by dinnertime. Yes, she’s serious.
How do some competitive eaters manage to stay healthy? While Michelle is sleeping, her body is doing some serious damage control, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, R.D., a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and co-author of Overcoming Binge Eating For Dummies. When your body consumes that much food, your blood sugar spikes and causes the pancreas to produce more insulin, which makes you feel really fatigued. And since there’s no way for your body to properly digest all of that food the way it normally would, says Cohn, it can cause diarrhea and/or vomiting.
Even though eating all of this fat, sugar, cholesterol, and calories in one sitting is hard on your body, it doesn’t really put a competitive eater at risk for diseases like heart disease or diabetes, say experts. “If you’re healthy in between competitions, you’re more at risk for choking during a competitive eating event than having a heart attack,” says Cohn. And get this: Since competitive eaters acclimate their bodies to these conditions by training and competing regularly, they might not even experience vomiting, diarrhea, or extreme fatigue, she says.
How do some competitive eaters stay fit? Michelle does gain some weight during competition season, typically fluctuating between 108 and 118 pounds (it’s competition season now, which would explain why she’s currently at 115). For the most part, Michelle credits her fit physique to being super active. She says she plays volleyball three times a week, likes to run (sometimes while dribbling a basketball), and uses her competitive eating as motivation to exercise. “Eating 30 hot dogs makes me want to go out and go on a run,” she says.
Plus, if you crunch the numbers, a single competition doesn’t have thatmuch of an impact on Michelle’s waistline. The 28 hot dogs she ate in last month’s competition came out to about 7,280 calories—but sometimes Michelle doesn’t eat anything else the day of the event. And since she eats healthfully outside of game days and works out regularly, it wouldn’t take her that long to burn off most of the extra calories.
Though Metz says that some competitive eaters just drink water and eat energy bars after a filling up at an event, Michelle says she eats pretty normally after a competition. The only thing she has to be careful about is portion sizes since her stomach has a hard time telling her brain when it’s full since it’s so stretched out. And because competitive eating is essentially a sport, says Cohn, serious competitors are not binge eating every weekend. Instead, they prepare for the events a few times a year and work off the food they ate in between.
Although it’s very impressive that a person can eat this much food and not gain a ton of weight (not to mention live to tell about it), it’s definitely not a great idea for someone who hasn’t been training; you’ll probably just end up getting sick, says Cohn. Instead, check out the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest on ESPN2 this weekend, and cheer on the competitors. Good luck, Michelle!