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Dear Matthew Alice:

I've been wondering about the current, regular winner of those eat-as-much-as-you-can contests on Coney Island. He's a skinny Japanese guy. Yet year after year he stuffs away more hotdogs into his gullet. I'm wondering, does he "set up" his digestive system by first consuming any of various digestive enzymes? Bromelian? Papain, etc.? Are there any rules about this?

-- Envious and curious, San Diego

Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules. Except the obvious: throw up, you're out. And digestive enzymes won't do you much good when what you'll have to do to beat the current record holder (Takeru Kobayashi) is cram 54 Nathan's dogs, with buns, into your gullet in 12 minutes. Not much digesting going on there. The International Federation of Competitive Eating doesn't word it this way, but best we can tell, it's a Zen thing. Gray matter over gut. The IFCE fancies itself the maitre d' of munch-offs; the outfit is basically a PR group that helps people organize and publicize eating contests to promote whatever they're promoting-- cereal competitions, meat meets, bagel battles, tomato tournaments. They oversee the Nathan's event every year.

So what's on the training table of gastronomic athletes? Lots of water and high-fiber veggies like celery. Anything that will stretch your stomach capacity for the day of the event. Normally, a stomach can hold about a quart. It will increase temporarily, but returns to its normal size fairly quickly. The big misconception is that skinny people have smaller stomachs, therefore can't eat as much. Not true. So the fact that Kobayashi weighs only 144 pounds just means that he doesn't eat 54 hot dogs every day. He can do it once a year if he does some stomach stretching and then, during the competition, finds whatever that head space is where he can keep his hands and jaw moving as fast as possible and can keep his throat from closing, Nature's way of telling us we're making pigs of ourselves.

A couple of years ago, Kobayashi went bun-to-bun with William "Refrigerator" Perry. Perry could barely eat 4 dogs, 48 fewer than Kobayashi. Not that he didn't have the gut, he just didn't have the mental toughness. It's Zen, baby, Zen.

Too Fat to Eat

From Jeff in the College Area:

Q: Re: your response about skinny people and eating contests. There is also something called the girdle, a ring of fat around the abdomen that heavy people have that restricts their stomachs from expanding. Skinny people, therefore, have some advantage in these contests.

If you follow the junk-food jock circuit, you may also notice that the serious competitors stand while they eat. The stomach expands forward and downward as it fills, so standing up gives you a little more room to grow.

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