As It Happens

How many hotdogs can 1 person eat? Scientist uses math to figure it out 

James Smoliga has long been interested in the limits of human endurance in the world of sport. Now, the professor of physiology has turned his attention to a different feat of human athleticism — competitive eating.

The answer is 84 hotdogs, says Prof. James Smoliga

Joey Chestnut is the world record holder for competitive hotdog eating. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

James Smoliga has long been interested in the limits of human endurance. 

He is a professor of physiology who specializes in sports science, the kind of field where researchers use mathematical formulas to determine how fast and far a human could possibly run, or what heights a person could reach while jumping.

But now Smoliga has turned his attention to a different feat of human athleticism — competitive eating. He set out to determine how many hotdogs a human being could potentially eat in 10 minutes. 

The answer, he said, is about 84, give or take.

"People are always asking just how fast can a human run, or how fast can a human swim or something like that. What's the biological limits of performance?" Smoliga, who teaches physiology at North Carolina's High Point University, told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.

"When I was reading some of the literature and some of the mathematical models trying to estimate these types of things … it occurred to me that the patterns that we see in track-and-field type of athletes … are actually very similar to what I suspected the Coney Island hotdog eating contest would reveal."

The findings were published Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters.

Greater than current world record 

So far, Smoliga said we haven't reached our full hotdog-eating potential as a species. The current world record is 75 hotdogs in 10 minutes, set by competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut at Coney Island this year. 

But there was a time when the best competitive eaters in the world couldn't scarf down even half that much.

"There's a slow, steady progression in the number of hotdogs that people would eat every year. You know, somewhere around 10 to 12 at first, and it progressed, like, 15 or so. Then there is an explosion in how quickly the record progressed," Smoliga said.

Hotdog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi helped change the game when it comes to competitive eating. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

Smoglia analyzed data from about four decades of Nathan's Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. The pattern, he said, is very similar to how running world records have progressed over decades.

"In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi doubled the previous record, and then the numbers kept going up from there as the people started taking the contest more seriously. And then it's kind of levelled off over the past few years."

One always has to think, well, if this person ate 83, could somebody eat 84? If this person ate 84, could somebody eat 85? You'll never know if the limit has actually ever been reached.- James Smoliga, physiologist

The next step, he said, was factoring in how often people deviate from the pattern.

"So by figuring out what the greatest possible deviation that we could have from this equation or this pattern, we can combine that with what the threshold or the plateau the pattern ends up being, add those two things together and figure out that it seems like the absolute limit is somewhere between 83 and 84 hotdogs."

But don't expect Chestnut to reach it anytime soon, he said. 

"I think it's extremely unlikely," Smoliga said. "He's at the point where I think he has almost reached his limitation."

WATCH | Joey Chestnut eclipses his own hotdog eating world record:

Joey Chestnut eclipses his own hotdog eating world record

Sports

12 months ago
1:39
Joey Chestnut broke his own world record by eating 75 hot dogs and buns to win the 2020 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest and a 13th Mustard Belt. 1:39

Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who studies human performance, told the New York Times Smoliga's work makes for "a great paper," and the pattern he found in competitive eating is common for sports events that grow in popularity.

"People start to train for it because there's some kind of incentive, like fame or money," Joyner said. 

So how does one get in the proper shape to eat seven dozen wieners nestled in partially sliced buns? Like any sport, Smoliga said, it's a combination of your body's physical limits and training.

"For many of these eaters, what they've discovered over the years is that by ingesting large amounts of food or liquid in very quick time periods, that can help stretch out your stomach and improve your eating performance," he said.

"For example, drinking a gallon of milk very quickly or having a gigantic portion of soup."

It's also about practice.

"There is some, you know, competition-specific training," he said. "Joey Chestnut does train by specifically eating hotdogs."

While Smoliga doesn't think Chestnut will be the one to prove his math, he said, he hopes somebody will in his lifetime.

"It would be validating that the mathematical model was correct to actually see it happen," he said. 

"But one always has to think, 'Well, if this person ate 83, could somebody eat 84? If this person ate 84, could somebody eat 85? You'll never know if the limit has actually ever been reached. But it would be pretty exciting."

He also doesn't recommend trying it at home.

"I am not suggesting anything," he said. "I'm just taking a look at what the data says."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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