Stomach stretching and tips on preparing for and succeeding at restaurant eating challenges (or competitive eating contests)
April 22, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Man vs Food vs Stomach Capacity: How (and for how long) should I "train" my stomach to hold six pounds of food? What can the stomach handle? How does food differ from liquid in the stomach? Additional tips for beating restaurant eating challenges? Lots of questions, and an account of my experience preparing so far, after the break.

So my wife and I watch a lot of Man v. Food, and oddly enough I have found it a bit inspiring lately... increasing my interest in competing in some kind of eating challenge. Well, the ideal opportunity to do just that has presented itself. A popular local dive has created a new challenge: a five-pound burger (2.5lbs meat + 2.5lbs bun/condiments), plus a pound of fries and a one hour time limit.

I have a small frame, weighing around 125 pounds, but I have always been able to eat lots of food if I wanted to. When I was 12, I easily ate a 36oz steak along with all the sides and a full beverage. Nowadays though, I eat much more conservatively, so I'm curious how I might prepare for this challenge. Granted, eating six pounds of food in under an hour isn't necessarily healthy to begin with, but I digress. I realize I'd be doing this at my own risk, of course, but I welcome your tips and suggestions along with answers to several questions I have (in bold below).

Naturally, I am curious about the stomach and how much content it can handle. I know the stomach can expand (I've read up to a gallon) but when it comes to drinking too much water, it can be deadly due to water intoxication/hyponatremia, though some have reported that they chug up to a gallon of water once per day to help stretch their stomach without such ill health effects. How long does it take for water to exit the stomach though?

Meanwhile, a pound of water may not necessarily take up the same space as a pound of food... I'm guessing food is an entirely different animal than liquid, but other than its density why and how does food differ from liquid when in the stomach? If the stomach can only handle a gallon of content, a lot of the purported amounts of food that some of these competitive eaters take in on various contests seem impossible!

I also noticed that a lot of competitive eaters just cram food down, hardly chewing it. How does the stomach handle that limited amounts of chewing? I presume one effect would be longer digestion time. In any case, is there a concern regarding how quickly you fill your stomach with six pounds of food? It sounds like speed may ultimately be the best strategy, eating fast enough to fill your stomach before your brain/body realize it's full, so maybe chewing as little as possible would work best in that respect, despite how unhealthy it might be. However, wouldn't chewing more thoroughly compact the food more in the stomach or would it cause the food to spread out more in the stomach?

So what kinds of things can I do to prepare for this challenge? Here are some ideas I've found and tried so far, including a thread on here but so far I've gotten mixed results:

* Eat lettuce and boiled cabbage, but how much? Lettuce is low-cal and has a lot of water content, while boiled cabbage is said to give off a lot of gas in the stomach, helping stretch it.
* Some competitive eaters claim to chug up to a gallon of water (and sometimes milk) in one sitting without reporting ill health effects (then limiting their water intake afterwards to prevent water intoxication/hyponatremia)
* Eat whole grapes. Takeru Kobayashi purportedly does this to stretch his stomach.
* Frequent trips to the buffet, or one large meal per day
* Any additional preparation or "training" tips?

Now, as far as results, for the past week I have been doing some of these techniques, including a daily 2-3 liter water chug (once per day, increasing slightly each day), and I had 2 pounds of boiled cabbage before bed last night (and nothing this morning) in preparation for a trip to the Chinese buffet for lunch today. Granted, cabbage doesn't exactly have the same density as meat/fries, so I don't think eating six pounds of cabbage equates to six pounds of meat/bread/starch.Also, it's hard to chew big chunks of cabbage. Would smaller cuts of cabbage give off less gas? I know you still have to chew it regardless of the size of each peice, effectively cutting it further, so this point may be moot after all (unless they just swallow it whole, in which case, ouch!).

So on my buffet trip at lunch today, I weighed all my food on a digital scale to gauge exactly how much I would be able to eat, especially after having done this week long series of stomach stretching techniques. The results were pretty conclusive: I ate 2.75 pounds (44 ounces) of meat, at which point I hit the wall, so I finished up with another half pound (8 ounces) of ice cream. It was that ice cream however that brought me to my bursting point (whether due to the amount consumed or simply the shock of cold to my otherwise warm stomach). In any case, that brought my total consumption to 3.25 pounds (52 ounces). Hardly six pounds! Thankfully I was able to keep it all down, but I certainly suffered the agony of my distended stomach for a few hours afterwards! The stomach certainly didn't feel like it wanted to stretch much to accomodate the excess of food.

So, the big question is, should I give up on the big 6 pound challenge, or is there more room for my stomach to stretch?
How much more work does it need to continue expanding?
Where might I go from here to continue expanding my stomach?
Is there more I can do, or is patience with my existing stomach stretching techniques the key to eventually expanding my stomach to fit all 6 pounds?

Naturally, I was under the assumption that stomach stretching would take effect within a week, if not sooner, but from the sounds of it, a stretched stomach should certainly stretch to hold more than 3 pounds!

Meanwhile, in addition to preparation, are there additional strategies I might use during the challenge to help me succeed, or is stomach stretching the only route to eventually craming all six pounds in successfully? Again, here are some ideas I've already pondered:

* Eat the burger, bun and fries in a strategic order. Any ideas on what order to eat the burger, bun and fries in? How fast can the stomach digest bread, meat and potatoes, respectively?
* Don't rush but keep a steady pace so the body and brain don't have time to think.
* Ignore taste, chew just enough to get it down smoothly.
* Quickly dunk food in water and/or take sips of liquid. Is soda not advisable for sipping on during such a challenge?
* Wiggle hips or jump up and down to compact food. Hard to do while sitting, but I digress.
* Take extra acid (vinegar) and/or digestive enzymes to help aid/speed up digestion. How effective might this technique be, considering the 1-hour time limit? Would the enzymes or extra acid be effective enough to clear out some of the stomach's contents within the challenge's hour?
* BYOC. Bring a variety of my own condiments to help change the flavors up after my taste buds get bored.
* Any additional tips to implement during the actual challenge?

Thanks for enduring the lengthy details and for offering your answers and feedback!
posted by purefusion to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
> How fast can the stomach digest bread, meat and potatoes, respectively

The stomach doesn't digest bread or potatoes. The stomach digests protein. You start digesting starches in your mouth, and then starch digestion continues in the small intestine. Stuff has to be squirted out of the stomach into the small intestine squirt by squirt. I would think not chewing the potatoes and bread would be a problem (though I swear my husband just inhales those things without chewing). People can shove down sausages and meat in those challenges because the stomach is designed to deal with chunks of meat. I can see how that would work okay. I find enzymes do aid digestion and prevent gas, but they also make me full faster (getting more out of the food). Not sure if that is a good idea for a challenge. I really have no idea about such food challenges, though.
posted by Listener at 6:45 PM on April 22, 2011

This is a hugely long question. Longer than I ever imagined. I really don't know how to even approach it. I am not a competitive eater, but I can eat more than anyone I have ever met. A few of my accolades are:

Eating 50 White Castle burgers, and a bag of chicken rings
Eating an entire Sbarro pizza
Eating 4 and a half feet of meatball subs at Subway
Eating 10 McDonalds Cheeseburgers in 10 minutes
Eating 6 Big Macs

The losers paid in all those contests.

I too weigh myself before I eat a big meal, we have a calibrated scale at work. I treat Fridays as "buffet Friday". I eat a buffet for lunch so I won't have to eat dinner, and it lets me go out fishing earlier. Today, being Lent, I went to a sushi buffet and at 5.6 lbs of sushi in about 20 minutes. I was alone, without co-workers, so I dove in. Then when I got back to work I found out the boss bought pizza, so I ate 3 slices of vegetarian pizza, but that doesn't really count.

To be fair I'm a big guy, about 6'4" 255, but at the time I did all that "personal record" stuff I was a hungry 195 lb teenager. Maybe it's genetic, who knows. I don't really see how you can train for it, though maybe the elite food eaters do.

Years ago I watched one of the famous hot dog eating contests on Coney Island one year and big ol William "Refrigerator" Perry was there. He ate all of four hotdogs before leaving early, then puking outside his limo. WTF? Who knows why he was so pathetic.

I'm not sure what my point is anymore except that I used to know a guy in college who was about your body type. Around 5'7" and 130 lbs soaking wet. He was great at hockey, but the coach thought his body just couldn't take the physical beating, and so he had to gain 20 lbs. He said he ate 7's. Seven entrees, 7 side dishes and 7 desserts. At every meal. Every day. For at least the two years I knew him. I don't think he ever gained a pound, but he could eat more than anyone I ever met.

So I'm thinking it might be just a genetic thing. But who knows. I say go for it anyway. My only secret is Eat Fucking Fast. I grew up with two brothers, so my supper time's were a free-for-all of who can grab it first and eat it, so it's just natural to me.

I have much better table manners now.
posted by sanka at 7:49 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and scientifically, the reason you eat fast to eat more is because it takes up to 20 minutes for your stomach to send that "Oh I'm Full and Satiated" hormone to your brain. In between that time you can pack in as much as physically possible.

If you exceed your physical capacity, your stomach will automatically let you know with its, uh, reverse mechanism.
posted by sanka at 8:01 PM on April 22, 2011

This IS a long question. As far as the order of your food challenge, you want to consider the speed of gastric emptying, not necessarily digestion, since as Listener pointed out, fats and carbs are not digested in the stomach. Once fatty food enters the small intestine from the stomach, it greatly delays gastric emptying. I'm not sure if one hour is enough time to matter *much* but I suppose by this logic eating the bun before the greasy burger & fries might help? See this link for an explanation of gastric emptying.

Other than that I have nothing to offer, other than my gut feeling (haha) is that it would take much longer than a week to stretch your stomach a significant amount, so I wouldn't give up so quickly! :)
posted by keribear at 10:20 PM on April 22, 2011

Response by poster: Listener: Very helpful information, thanks! The bit about the enzymes making you feel full faster is certainly interesting.

sanka: You seem quite skilled in this area. I enjoyed the story and additional input, especially the bit about the sushi. Wow, thanks!

keribear: Thanks for the encouragement and strategizing. Sounds like there is something to this bun/meat order strategy after all, even if it only helps a little. Thanks for the link as well, very useful info!
posted by purefusion at 8:08 AM on April 23, 2011

Response by poster: I was going through the list of questions and to my surprise, they've mostly all been answered, either directly or indirectly. Just a couple still weighing on my mind though:

Would six pounds of cabbage take more or less space than six pounds of meat, potatoes and/or bread?
Without making daily trips to the buffet (I don't want to eat all that meat every day), how can I gauge how much I'm eating in cabbage comparatively?
In other words, how will I know I'm ready to go for the six-pound challenge?

posted by purefusion at 8:22 AM on April 23, 2011

I don't know why you're on cabbage so much. I can't think of a more, ahem, volatile situation than 6 lbs of cabbage in my belly. I'd surely be divorced if that were my thing.

I'd much rather eat meat and potatoes. I think it's more about liking what you eat. The only problem with that is that if you like what you eat it's probably loaded in sodium and fat. Given your body type and age, it's probably not much of a problem. But eating 3 bowls of fettuccine alfredo is like a literal heart attack waiting to happen!

It's not so much about the space considerations. I mean sure shredded lettuce or cabbage would take up space, but to eat six lbs of it, that's a shitload of cabbage, like 3-4 heads! I can eat a 2lb steak easily and still go on for the steak fries and salad, much less space. Also, you aren't going to be eating cabbage or lettuce, you're going to be eating a burger, with a bun, so take that into account

I like the Kobayashi approach of whole grapes. Essentially just nutrient water blocks. But then again I don't know if I even buy into the whole idea of "stomach stretching". You'd probably have to do that for months.

But try a few things out. I mean, can you even imagine the next day after a 6lb cabbage binge? It would literally clean you out of everything you have ever eaten. That might be a great idea for another type of challenge.
posted by sanka at 9:03 PM on April 23, 2011

Here is a journal article where they imaged a world class competitive speed eater. At least in this case, it appears that the stomach stretching and not gastric emptying allows the speed eater to consume so much so fast.

I think you might be underestimating the amount of time it takes to develop/train the stretched stomach thing (maybe more like months since you're not going for extreme speed). You're probably ready when you can eat enough to have a food baby (they describe this in not quite these words in the article).
posted by tangaroo at 10:22 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Nice find, tangaroo! Amazing insight. I did some digging around and found out that the speed eater studied in that article is Tim "Eater X" Janus. According to Wikipedia, he was featured in the NatGeo special "The Science of Speed Eating" which I also found. MTV also featured him in an episode of "True Life" titled "I'm a Competitive Eater" which I've yet to find. Very interesting stuff, nevertheless.

Well, I think I'm just going to go for the challenge then, rather than putting my body through the rigor of "training" since this is only a one-time ordeal anyway. My stomach only seems to want to hold 2 liters of water at any given time. The purported 3 liters was consumed within a longer time frame, probably after some of the water had already exited the stomach, thanks to keribear's linked article. The same 2 liters was also the reported maximum that the control subject tangaroo's linked study.

So I guess if this challenge burger can fit within 2 liters of space, so be it. I'll still do my strategy of speed + specific order (bun, then burger/fries), and perhaps I'll continue implementing some of my other stomach stretching techniques until I do the challenge, but I'll probably do it within the next week. No reason to prolong the inevitable, I suppose. After all, I'm not trying to become a competitive speed eater! It's one-and-done for me.

As for the food baby thing... yeah I do look about as far along as my 22-week pregnant wife (well, maybe slightly less) after eating a lot. Nothing outrageous, but she only sticks out a little bit at the moment too, so I digress. :P

Thanks again for all this helpful info! I can definitely see it being useful for other "burgeoning" competitive eaters as well as for myself. I'll definitely report back as to whether or not I defeated the challenge.
posted by purefusion at 12:58 PM on April 26, 2011

Response by poster: In Eat This Book, I found a useful bit of info on how long competitive eaters, specifically Takeru Kobayashi, "train" (via an interview for the book). I just thought I'd share it here, since it's relevant, and answers the question of "how long?" Here's the excerpt:
Two months before a contest, Kobayashi starts religiously building up his stomach capacity. For any given contest, he gives himself a capacity goal and keeps training until he reaches it. For the Nathan's [Famous 4th of July Hot Dog Eating] contest, he trains with healthier foods until the end of the cycle, when he starts focusing on how to attack the particular competitive foodstuff.

Over the first half of the training period, Kobayashi gains a tremendous amount of weight. To illustrate this, he pulls out his cell phone to show me a picture of himself from two months before. At that point, around the beginning of June, he weighed over 180 pounds. Over the next month, he lost all the weight he'd gained—around forty pounds—with vigorous weit training and exercise. In keeping with the Belt of Fat Theory, he believes that if some of the American eaters lost weight, their capacity and speed would increase and they'd be "pretty invincible."

The most difficult and important part of the training involves getting the swallowing technique down. The concept is not much different from what a sword swallower does—he teaches his esophagus to relax and not close up while swallowing unchewed food. "Anyone in the world can stretch their stomach to what I stretch mine to," he says. It takes extensive training however, and a certain reckless bravery to relax one's esophagus and condition the brain to ignore the gag reflex.
He goes on to explain that it's as much a mental game as a physical one. Very intriguing insight. You can continue reading the book on page 128 via Google Books. Horsemen of the Esophagus is another interesting read, thought the latter's interview with Kobayashi is a bit less insightful.

I haven't done the challenge yet. That's probably a couple weeks away, yet. Still working on my mental prep, and perhaps perfecting my swallowing technique. :)
posted by purefusion at 11:08 AM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Well, I finally took on the challenge today. I've been practicing this week by swallowing whole grapes and "speed eating" my normal meals, and this morning I started the day with a 2 liter water chug (with added electrolytes to prevent hyponatremia, as usual). I also syked myself up by watching a DVR marathon of Man v. Food Nation, and then I watched the 2011 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Competition on ESPN at noon, where I even learned yet another swallowing technique: the valsalva maneuver, which purportedly makes swallowing large chunks of food easier on the esophagus.

Ultimately however, no amount of these "training" or "swallowing" techniques could have fully prepared me for the full onslaught of the challenge. On a positive note, I scored a personal best, eating a whopping 4.5 pounds of food! I made significant progress in the first 15 minutes, speeding through three of the five half-pound patties, plus the burger toppings and the top bun, but I was thrown for a loop the moment I tore into that huge, extremely dry and awful tasting bun. By that point, my body decided it no longer wanted to swallow anything, and so the over-chew effect settled in, whereby I felt like I had to chew, chew, chew forever before I could work up the courage to swallow just one bite.

During the course of the challenge, I had also encountered the gag-reflex several times, as well, because my body simply didn't want to swallow. This is probably where I failed in my "training" because I didn't rigorously train my body and/or mind to intake food that it didn't want to take in. This is where I think Koby has conquered the "mental aspect" of the game. No amount of time, nor "mind-over-matter" thoughts seemed to help me stomach any more of the remaining two patties, though I tried to press on in spite! I did conquer nearly all but the last patty and had about a third of the bottom bun left, but I still had nearly all the fries left.

I definitely felt like I still had plenty of room left in my stomach for the remaining food, so in that aspect, I think I did well in preparing my stomach. Ultimately, I was as ready as I was ever going to be, capacity-wise. I just failed to prepare my mind to eat food that wasn't top quality, probably because this particular restaurant is known for producing top quality burgers on a normal basis! It really threw my for a loop!!

In the end though, I felt good. I didn't feel like I over-ate, as I said, I feel like there was still plenty of room left, probably because I did the 2-liter water chug four hours earlier. I came home, took a 3-hour nap, and I slept comfortably because I wasn't in pain. Maybe the Tylenol I took beforehand helped there as well, not sure. I'm glad I took part in the challenge. It was an interesting endeavor, and I've learned so much about the fine art that is competitive eating. I definitely have a lot more respect for those people now. I'm just not willing to permanently wreck my body for the fame, because I only ever wanted to do this once.

Well, I've done it now! Not planning on doing it again! I'm happy to accept defeat in humility! Thanks again to all of you for your helpful input. I hope others can benefit from this collection of ideas in case they're looking to do this themselves! And to that end, I say... GOOD LUCK! :)
posted by purefusion at 5:24 PM on July 4, 2011

Thank you for the update, but I really think you are wrong. This is just the start. Now that you know what you are up against you know what you have to do to beat it! You'll be back!

I have never experienced the gag reflex or the not being able to chew/swallow thing. I just eat and regret it later. If you're ever in Minneapolis hit me up and we can do the Beast Burger challenge. I took that down not too long ago and would be willing to give it another go. I think that's almost comparable to what you were doing.
posted by sanka at 10:03 PM on July 15, 2011

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