It’s a popular notion that dieting shrinks your stomach, so that, eventually, you feel less hungry and get fuller faster. But does that concept work in reverse? It’s an approach to Thanksgiving many claim to try — eating more in the days leading up to the holidays to “stretch out” the stomach and create a little more room for Thanksgiving dinner.
Doctors wouldn’t recommend this kind of prep session, but according to science, it is in fact possible, and the techniques are ones employed by many competitive eaters. But it’ll take weeks or months to get your stomach big enough to really make a noticeable dent in your family’s Thanksgiving feast.
Evidence shows that our eating patterns change the size of our stomachs. In one study of obese individuals who were limited to 1,000 calories daily for a month, participants’ stomachs shrunk by up to 36 percent. Another study of binge eaters, those who consume lots of food in a short amount of time, found that they could fit more food in their stomachs than their non-binge-eating peers. That finding — measured multiple ways, including by a balloon inflated in the stomach to take stock of stomach capacity — held true for both individuals of normal weight and obese individuals.
For competitive eaters, stomach stretching is a common part of their training. Competitive eater Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, who won a 2007 competition by eating almost 7 pounds of turkey in eight minutes, said he trains with a simple strategy: “I eat really large meals topped off with a lot of water to stretch my stomach out.”
Competitive eaters “can train their stomach to enlarge and expand to an extraordinary degree,” said Dr. Marc Levine, who serves as chief of gastrointestinal radiology at the University of Pennsylvania and has researched stomach stretching. “Literally the entire abdomen … [becomes] this giant flaccid sack that can take phenomenal volumes of food.”
In one demonstration of this, Levine conducted a hot-dog-eating test between a 29-year-old competitive eater who had been stretching his stomach for months and a similarly sized 35-year-old man with a normal, “hearty” appetite. The men were given a massive supply of hot dogs coated in barium, and Levine and his colleagues used a live X-ray technique to watch what happened as they ate.
The control ate seven hot dogs before stopping, and doctors saw his stomach was about the same size as before the challenge started. But for the competitive eater — who downed 36 hot dogs in 10 minutes — it was a different story. His stomach hadn’t been squeezing the food to break it down like it normally would. Instead, it had stretched to an impressive size to accommodate all the food.
“It looked like he was carrying a full-term pregnancy,” Levine said.
Mind over matter
Other factors than sheer stomach size can affect how much you’re able to scarf down on Thanksgiving, like the mental ability to keep eating past a comfortable point.
“We reach a point normally where the degree of stretching is enough that it sets off a neural reflex that tells your brain you’re full,” said Levine. But competitive eaters’ training could increase the amount of food they can eat before that neural reflex signals that it’s time to stop eating, Levine said.
Competitive eater Bob “Notorious B.O.B.” Shoudt said it’s not about preparations before the competition, but about “mind over matter” during a challenge. “If I was in a pizza eating contest, I wouldn’t eat 10 pizzas to train for it,” he said. “That’s really taxing your body for little to no benefit.” Shoudt’s technique is to not eat for a day or two prior to a competition nor a day after. “It’s more about the ability to eat past where most people stop,” Shoudt said.
Another strategy Levine said will work: If you want to eat a lot of food, biologically speaking, the faster you eat, the better.
“It takes awhile for the ‘full’ reflex to kick in,” Levine explained. “That’s why people say if you want to lose weight, eat slowly.”
Bertoletti said a typical eating competition lasts about 10 to 12 minutes, so it could be that competitive eaters are done scarfing down food before the brain flips the “full” signal, if their brains even flip on that signal at all.
But if you’re hoping to stretch out your stomach before Thursday’s dinner, you might be out of luck. Common sense says you have to stretch your stomach out gradually over a period of weeks or months, Levine said. “You can’t train yourself by overeating just one time,” he explained.
And it’s definitely not the path to the most enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner.
Recalling his eating competitions, Bertoletti said, “We’ve all eaten too much on the holidays. It’s like that, but worse.”