Professional competitive eating, like soccer, is not as popular in the United States as it is in the rest of the world, where expert gorgers compete for tens of thousands of dollars per tournament. But we are arguably a nation of amateur competitive eaters, 30.5 percent of us obese and the rest on the Atkins diet, everyone striving to eat as many strips of bacon as possible in 15 minutes. We also have an annual nationwide de facto competitive-eating event. You may know it as Thanksgiving.
The strange thing about competitive eating, though, is that the world's undisputed gluttony champion is a flyweight. Takeru Kobayashi hails from Japan and weighs 145 pounds, empty. Earlier this year he won the annual Fourth of July hot-dog-eating competition in Coney Island, New York, by scarfing down 44 hot dogs -- with buns -- in 12 minutes, averaging one every 16.4 seconds. Tragically, he fell short of his record of 50 1/2 set last year. Second place went to the 408-pound Edward Jarvis, who downed 30 1/2 hot dogs in the same amount of time. William "The Refrigerator" Perry, formerly of the Chicago Bears, managed only five.
So how does a man roughly a third the size of Jarvis outeat him by half? Answer, at least in part: The size of the stomach at rest is inconsequential. All that matters is the stomach's ability to expand, to adapt itself to the amount of food being shoved down the esophagus. And as in any other competitive sport, stomach-stretching skills require training.
Kobayashi's regimen includes shrinking his gut by jogging for hours, then distending it by chugging gallons of water. He regularly feasts on giant meals of low-fat, high-fiber foods like cabbage, which stay in the stomach longer before breaking down. (By the way, the world record for cabbage consumption is 6 pounds, 9 ounces, in 9 minutes, held by American Thomas Hardy.) And he keeps trim: A skinny man's stomach has little fat to push against it and fight the food for space.
Perhaps most important, Kobayashi must train his brain. Muscles stretch when they relax, and when we eat a big meal, our stomach muscles relax so much that they send a message to the brain, which interprets the signal to mean a full belly. Then our brain stops us from eating anymore. But a good training regimen deadens this communication, causing "the signal to the brain or the brain itself to become less responsive to the large volume of food," says Douglas Seidner, M.D., program director for clinical nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic. In other words, you can eat yourself numb, or at least deaden your urge to stop.
So when you're sitting down to dinner this Thanksgiving, remember this: When your stomach begins to cry for you to slow down, it's all in your head.