Over the July 4th weekend, with streams of sweat pouring down his face, Joey Chestnut broke his own world record for hot dog eating by downing 75 hot dogs (with buns) in 10 minutes at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Miki Sudo set a women’s record, 48½ hot dogs.

Because of the pandemic, the event was held virtually, and Dr. James Smoliga was glued to his screen, rooting for new records. For the past few months, Smoliga, a veterinarian and exercise scientist, had been working on a mathematical analysis of the maximum number of hot dogs that a person could theoretically consume in 10 minutes.

“The answer is 83,” said Smoliga, a professor at High Point University in North Carolina.

He has now published the full analysis, which calculated this number based on 39 years of historical data from the Nathan’s contest, as well as on mathematical models of human performance that consider the potential for extreme athletic feats.

“It’s a great paper,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who studies human performance, adding that the analysis shows the classic fast rise in performance followed by more gradual improvements that happen when an event becomes professionalized. The best part, he said, is that Smoliga wrote it with a straight face.

Smoliga’s calculations show that when adjusted for body mass, the world’s most competitive hot dog eaters could outeat a grizzly bear, as measured by the amount of food per unit of time. Bears can eat the equivalent of about eight hot dogs per minute, compared with Chestnut’s ability to eat 7.5 per minute, but the bears don’t continue at this pace for more than six minutes, Smoliga said. What Chestnut and Sudo have over these animals, he said, is staying power.

But that doesn’t mean that they could beat a bear, assuming one entered next year’s contest.

“It’s nice to make a comparison amongst species, but I don’t know if it’s exactly the same,” said Annelies De Cuyper, an animal nutritionist at Ghent University in Belgium. The consumption numbers from wild animals come from studying their normal behavior, whereas human eating records are an example of abnormal eating patterns.

“If you put them all together in a contest, I don’t know who would win,” she said.

Stretching the limits

The chief factor limiting how much a person (or animal) can eat at once is the stomach’s capacity for stretching to accommodate the volume of food.

In 2007, a study examined the digestive tracts of two men — one a competitive eater, the other a regular volunteer — when they took part in a simulated hot dog eating contest in a lab. The control subject stopped after seven hot dogs, declaring that he would be sick if he ate another bite. The speed-eater scarfed down 36.

The study found that the most striking difference between the two men was that the competitive eater’s stomach had an enormous capacity for stretching, and that the food that was eaten during the test stayed in the stomach, rather than being emptied into the intestines, said the study’s senior author, Dr. David Metz, a professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

The extent to which these traits are innate or can be improved with training is not entirely clear, but a majority of elite competitive eaters who have competed in the Nathan’s contest have improved over time. “Nobody gets worse,” Metz said.

Despite using the same hot dogs and buns for 40 years, the Nathan’s contest has seen performance among elite competitors rise by about 700%.

“No other sport comes close to that,” Smoliga said.

This performance curve implies that the stomach muscles of competitive eaters might lose their ability to contract back to their original size, leaving them “with a big flaccid bag for a stomach,” he said.

If Smoliga’s prediction of 83 hot dogs in 10 minutes seems like a stretch, consider this: In Metz’s 2007 study, the speed eater had downed 36 hot dogs before the researchers terminated the simulated contest, worried that he might perforate his stomach. Thirteen years later, Chestnut ate more than twice as many hot dogs, which suggests that we probably won’t know the actual human limit until we reach it.