5 Things You Didn't Know About Competitive Eating

PHOTO: Nathans Fourth of July hot dog eating contest
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Many of us will have one too many hot dogs at this year's Fourth of July cookout. But the winner of this year's Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York, is likely to stuff himself with nearly 70 wieners.

As a salute to today's 98th annual hot dog eating championship, here are five things you probably didn't know about competitive eating.

Watch the contest live on ESPN!

Eating to Win

PHOTO: Nathans Fourth of July hot dog eating contest
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It's a Real Sport

Like baseball, competitive eating has two major leagues, the International Federation of Competitive Eaters, also known as Major League Eating, and the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters. AICE contests feature "picnic-style" rules, which require food to be eaten as it's normally presented with no mashing, dunking in water or other mutilation. IFOCE, which hosts the Coney Island hot dog contest, allows competitors to dunk their food before swallowing.

Richard Shea, president and co-founder of the IFOCE along with his brother George, said that the federation does not accept eating athletes under 18 years of age for safety reasons. Also, don't try this at home. Competitive eaters are trained, skilled athletes, and there are medical staff stationed at every event in case of emergency.

Eating to Win

PHOTO: Nathans hot dog eating weigh-in
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It's Not Healthy, But...

It's obvious that eating massive amounts of food in a short period of time isn't good for you but let's do the math anyway. Current No. 1 ranked competitive eater, Joey Chestnut of San Jose, Calif., holds the world record for eating 68 Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs and Buns in 10 minutes for a total of nearly 20,000 calories, 1,173 grams of fat, 210 mg of cholesterol and 48,990 mg of sodium. That's a day's worth of calories for every minute of eating.

Hot Dog Havoc: Health Risks of Competitive Eating

But most of the elite competitors are surprisingly healthy. Tim Janus, also known as Eater X, finished second in last year's Coney Island contest. An eating competitor for the past nine years, he says he only overeats in competition and exercises daily. At 5' 10" he claims to weigh 155 pounds, with a lean, 7.5 percent body fat and a total cholesterol level of just 141.

"It's like running a marathon," Janus explained. "Once in a while won't hurt you, but if you do one every day it's not great for your body."

Shea said that most top competitors strive to be just as lean and fit as Janus, because any excess belly fat can impede stomach expansion and limit their intake.

Eating to Win

PHOTO: Competitive eater
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Competitors Train Hard

The masticator muscles of the jaw are among the strongest muscles in the body. Bob Shoudt, who holds the world record for eating more food by weight or volume than any other competitor, says he chews gum constantly – up to 25 pieces at a time -- to strengthen his masticators so he can grind up food more quickly. Shea said the jaws of top competitors can exert 280 pounds of force, about the same as a German shepherd.

Shoudt and other competitors push the limit of stomach distension by drinking copious amount of fluids. Even those who don't train this way appear to have a super human ability to expand their stomachs. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology found that competitive eaters' stomachs can grow four times greater than the average person's to hold four liters' worth of food and fluid.

Competitive eaters also learn techniques to speed up the eating process. For example, Shoudt says he hops up and down to accelerate the swallowing process with gravity, and he sometimes presses against his stomach to push food lower into the abdomen. Some eaters use a move called the Valsalva Maneuver, which involves pinching the nose and holding the breath. This closes off the airway and supposedly increases the squeezing movement of the esophagus known as peristalsis.

Eating to Win

PHOTO: Noodle eating contest
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It's Not Just Hot Dogs

Although the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Coney Island is attended by more than 60,000 spectators and is perhaps the best known competitive eating event in the world, it's by no means the only one. If something is edible, there is probably a competition to see who can eat the most of it in the shortest amount of time.

By eating 12 pounds of burritos in 10 minutes, Janus became burrito-eating champion of the world. He is also the tiramisu, pork rind and ramen noodle competitive eating world record holder.

There are speed-eating competitions for pizza -- both 24- and 16-inch diameter pies – as well as Vienna sausage, pulled pork and beef brisket. More health-conscious competitive eaters can enter contests to see who can eat the most asparagus, cabbage, garlicky greens or fruit. Those with a sweet tooth vie for titles in consuming things like birthday cake, moon pies, candy, chocolate and strawberry shortcake.

Eating to Win

PHOTO: Sonya Thomas in buffalo wing eating competition
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Women Compete Too

Nearly 25 percent of the IFOCE's membership is female. Though a female has never won the Coney Island contest, the top women eaters have proven they can hang with the guys.

Sonya Thomas, the 105-pounder known as "The Black Widow," is ranked the No. 3 competitive eater in the U.S. She holds 25 competitive eating world records that include eating 8.4 pounds of baked beans in two minutes, 47 seconds and scarfing down 80 chicken nuggets in five minutes. In 2008, she bested the top-ranked eater, Takeru Kobayashi, in a fruit-cake eating contest.

Lady newcomer Miki Sudo, ranked seventh by the IFOCE, recently smoked the No. 1 ranked Joey Chestnut in a rib eating contest in Chicago. And Stephanie Torres won the first ever Coney Island Cupcake Eating Competition by wolfing down 71 of the mini-cakes in eight minutes.

"Some females can crush most of the guys," Shoudt said. "I just want to beat them the same as I do any other competitor."

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