Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Stringer
Joey Chestnut is the Michael Jordan of competitive eating. But watching him in action can be distressing. You’re not treated to the ‘kinetic beauty’ of other elite athletes like Roger Federer or Lionel Messi. Instead, every moment feels like vicarious torture – it’s hard not to put yourself in the shoes of the eater and suffer every wince and gag; cheeks lined with claggy bun, oesophagus clogged with bits of meat.
On July 4, Chestnut will be attempting to capture his 13th ‘mustard belt’, the trophy (and a $10k prize) that goes to the winner of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the centrepiece event for the circuit’s organising body, Major League Eating (MLE). Chestnut has won 12 of the last 13 contests, only losing out to Matt Stonie in 2015. The Californian’s all-time record is 74 hot dogs and buns (HDB) in 10 minutes, achieved in 2018.
In order to see this embed, you must give consent to Social Media cookies. Open my cookie preferences.
He is undoubtedly a once in a generation talent – and the only questions going into this year’s contest are whether he can break his own record, and what makes him so unbelievably good at eating hot dogs. As with all great athletes, it’s a mixture of talent, mentality, and sheer hard work.
“I was always a big eater,” says Chestnut via Skype in the days leading up to the contest. “There are six kids in the family, two older sisters and then four boys. And the four boys, we would just compete in everything… I was always the big eater in the family. I just loved to eat big.” At home, ‘eating big’ wasn’t seen as a bad thing – although visitors were sometimes shocked. At 21, his brother signed him up for his first competition, and it “kind of snowballed” from there.
He’s always had a similar training method, consisting of practice contests, where he tries to push himself a little bit further each time, sandwiched between recovery periods before a fast a couple of days before the event. ”No solid food, and once I feel like I’m empty, it’s pretty much a cleanse with lemon juice and water,” Chestnut explains. He also runs, which he finds helps with the breathing, and he’ll notice the difference when he doesn’t.
During those simulated competitions, he’ll video himself and assess, spotting holes: “Alright, there I’m pushing too hard,” Chestnut says. “I need to slow down, this muscle’s a little bit weak. If my jaws are slowing down, or my oesophagus is slowing down, I need to take smaller bites. If my jaws are slowing down, I need to use my hand to help masticate the food with my hands…”
There may be natural advantages too – like Jordan’s big hands, or Messi’s low centre of gravity. The stomach is roughly the size of two fists next to each other, one vertical, one horizontal, says David Metz, a gastroenterologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Speed eaters seemingly don’t end up with the same kind of satiety reflex most people have – when the wiring in the lining of the stomach tells the brain to stop eating.
In 2007, Metz co-authored a study that used X-rays to compare how the gastrointestinal tract of a world-class speed eater behaved during an eating contest compared with that of an average person. The researchers found that the competitive eater’s stomach was able “to form an enormous flaccid sac” capable of housing endless food, with more piling up in the oesophagus, which could be stretched out over time. “You can make that comparison for speed eating: some people have that ability, and some people don’t,” Metz says. “But you potentially can train your stomach to become more relaxed.
“Man is an evolved species,” Metz continues. “In the very beginning, when you ate, you ate as much as you possibly could because you never knew when your next meal was going to come… And so if you had a capacious stomach that relaxed a lot and could take a lot of food without making you vomit, you would.” The ability to gorge yourself in one sitting may no longer be required for survival, but in someone like Chestnut, the skill has persisted.
Chestnut – whose nickname is ‘Jaws’ – also has a thicker-set neck than most of the other eaters on any of the stages he’s shared, but that’s not genetic. He trains it. He works the tiny muscles in his jaws and throat to comply as he ushers untold pounds of frankfurters and water-sodden buns down. One exercise entails Chestnut lifting his head back and forth, wearing a gum guard with an attachment holding a bag filled with weights. As he does it, his carotid arteries – the ones that trace the sides of the neck – become engorged as if he were a weightlifter. The point is to ensure that at a competitive meet all the food going into his mouth is eaten quickly, without morsels left in the back of his throat, or he’ll get nauseous, or choke.
Like the other competitors, Chestnut will stand during competitions to allow for more room, and he’ll constantly move up and down and snake his chest and stomach in and out in an effort to speed up the transit of liquid-soaked HDB into the lower part of the stomach.
He also always seems to thrive in the maelstrom of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. “Stories of greatness always come in moments of pressure, says Hannah Stoyel, sports psychologist and founder of Optimise Potential. “So it’s recognising that and using your nerves for good… so if he feels any kind of pressure or nerves or anything, he’s able to keep his arousal level exactly right, and basically just nail it. And that can really separate people who had been training on the same level, but then when they go to compete, he can outdo them.”
Stoyel points to Chestnut’s ‘eating big’ upbringing as another factor in his success. “There’s actually an element of, almost like he was training for this and doing some deliberate practice early on, just by the nature of the family he was born into… from a very early age, he was experiencing training for this type of competition.”
Experts have hinted in the past toward more-long-term gastrointestinal complications further down the road. The 2007 study by Metz and colleagues warns against morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea, vomiting, and the need for a gastrectomy – a removal of part of the stomach.
For Chestnut – who worked as a construction manager before becoming a full-time competitive eater – his success is more about nurture than nature. He explains how he used to keep a food journal, and that starting out he would feel full eating 20 HDB (although still comfortable) and that it was only through trial and error that he made his body adapt. Now he feels the same way eating 70.
Some newcomers can polish off 25, but for whatever reason don’t push on. “I’m not saying I’m smarter than them,” he says. “But I kind of look at it like an engineering problem and I need to find a way to get more in me and make my body adapt… there are people who are naturally better than me. But I think I put the work in there to make myself the best.”
The authors of the 2007 agree. “It could well be that these skills result from a combination of an inherently compliant stomach and adaptive training,” they write. “I think that’s probably the real answer,” says Metz. “And this jumping up and down method… for example, to sort of clog it all up at the bottom of the stomach and ram it into the antrum (the end of the stomach nearest the intestines) to make more space.”
Saturday’s hot dog eating competition will be one of the first live televised sporting events in the US post-Covid, with six male contestants battling it out, preceded by six females. The event has taken place on New York’s Coney Island since 1972, drawing thousands to the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues by the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand (now a ubiquitous chain in the US). But this year it’ll be in an undisclosed, crowd-free location.
“It’s gonna be weird. I’m nervous. I’m used to the crowd helping me,” Chestnut says. On top of that, he’ll be able to hear the “primal” noises emanating from the other eaters, as will the viewers watching on TV. But on the plus side, it will be cooler inside than the usually balmy New York July weather, and, as Chestnut says, “there’s gonna be less eaters so there’s a chance the hot dogs will be made even better… I’m hopeful that they’re gonna be good dogs, fast dogs.”
Geoffrey Esper, a quiet 45-year-old from Massachusetts ranked second in the MLE standings, is one of Chestnut’s main rivals this year. He’s beaten Joey in a number of recent events and managed 47 HDB last year. But Chestnut says Darron Breeden is probably his biggest competition this year – he’s been telling friends he’s been putting over 60 dogs away at home.
“I want to see how far I can go,” Chestnut says. “I know I’m capable of more than the 74. It still makes me happy; it’s a weird thing… I go into it knowing I’m gonna feel like garbage for two days. And I feel like garbage going into it – it’s the fasting and weird calorie intake, but, it’s just… I like the whole process. I like it. And I like the feeling of being full. I like beating people – it’s a weird addiction.”
More great stories from WIRED
☢️ Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
😷 Which face mask should you buy?
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.