If you’d like to own a 10 percent stake in newly-opened Brooklyn taco shop Don Chingon, all you have to do is polish a $150, 30-pound burrito in an hour. The internet will tell you this because the internet got very excited about the “Gran Chingon Challenge” last week. What the internet may not tell you is that you almost certainly won’t succeed if you aren’t a professional competitive eater. Publicity stunts are a thing, but so is human biology.
“A speed eater is much more likely to pull this off than a huge person with an enormous appetite,” Dr. Marc Levine, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Inverse. Even if someone were morbidly obese, Dr. Levine points out, 30 pounds of food at once is too much to handle. “They would get so full that they would stop before they could get near the limit.”
In the only published study on the topic of competitive eating physiology, which Levine describes as “pseudoscientific,” a competitive eater and a control subject ate as many hot dogs as they could in 12 minutes. (That there was an experimental n of 1 is the reason for Dr. Levine’s scientific self-deprecation.) The twist was that the brats headed into stomachs coated in barium, enabling Levine to x-ray the bellies as they filled.
Levine had previously considered two theories of competitive eating: Either eaters’ stomaches must empty into the small intestine faster than average or distend. “And I don’t know how you’d train a stomach to empty faster,” he says. “It had to be that the stomach expands more.”
And so it was. Levine describes the speed eater he worked with as a “great-looking, buff” guy with a flat, toned abdomen. He describes the brats as multitudinous. “Afterward,” he says, “it look liked he was carrying a near-term pregnancy.”
As Levine and his colleagues laid out in 2007 in the American Journal of Roentgenology, the control subject ate seven hot dogs in 12 minutes and felt ill. The competitive eater, known as a “gurgitator” in the parlance of the food circuit, sucked down 36 hot dogs before the researchers cut him off. (“God forbid his stomach perforated, we’d have to rush him to the OR.”)
Assessing the radiographic images, Levine noticed a few things: Behind his abs, the speed eater’s stomach was less constrictively strong — more flaccid — at the start, and then ballooned as it filled with food, pushing the other internal organs out of the way. To get the franks down so quickly, an assembly line of hot dogs filled his esophagus. “The front end of the hot dog would push the next one into his stomach.” In order to stay well proportioned, the speed eater would consume nothing but liquids and light snacks over the coming weak.
If you ask Levine, it is sheer willpower, coupled with intense training, that separates the chumps like us from the champs. Unless you’ve broken it with an intensely consumptive regimen, you have a “satiety reflex.” It’s not clear exactly what triggers this reflex — adipose tissue releasing the hormone leptin is thought to play a role in shutting hunger down — but it’s clear that the average human struggles to dangerously overeat. Don Chingon has its competitors sign a death waiver, which is a good move as far as promotion goes, but probably unnecessary. People are likely just going to throw up a lot.
But if you have conquered your satiety reflex, as gurgitators do over months of training, then inhuman feats of consumption cease to be particularly trying. When somebody can eat 12 pounds in 12 minutes, Levine says, referencing Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas’ feat of 11.3 pounds of lobster in a dozen minutes, 30 pounds in an hour starts looking very doable.
Doable, sure, but certainly not advisable. Because of the health unknowns, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters has started to trim the length of competitions to under the 10 minute mark. “Major League Eating,” Don Chingon owner Vic Robey tells Inverse, “deemed us too dangerous.” Still, Robey says he would welcome the gurgitators to set a world record at Don Chingon.
The Gran Chingon Challenge officially kicks off Monday and Google has requested the first burrito. They’re smart over there, but unless they’ve got someone with a distended stomach, mind over matter isn’t going to cut it.