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YouTube // NYRRVideo

17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion

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YouTube // NYRRVideo

Most of the time, Yasir Salem is a mild-mannered marketing director. But on weekends, he regularly pulls off incredible gastrointestinal feats as a championship-winning competitive eater. And it all started as a joke. “I was watching the Nathan’s contest in 2008, and I thought, ‘Wow, all I have to do is eat a bunch of hot dogs and I can be on ESPN?’" he says with a laugh. "I soon learned that it's not that easy.”

But Salem stuck to it, and these days, he's a seasoned competitive eater, ranked #10 in the world. We couldn’t resist asking him for a few tricks of the trade.


When Salem wanted to get started, he didn’t hire a trainer. First, he turned to the internet, and then, as he began to compete, got advice from other competitive eaters. “If you enter enough contests, you get friendly with them, and they’ll share tidbits of how they make things happen,” he says.


Major League Eating puts on some 70 contests every year, including July 4th’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Most contests take place during the warm months—exactly the opposite time from when most people want to be eating pounds and pounds of food. “It does sound counterintuitive, but these eating contests are shows for people to come and watch,” Salem says. “They're generally outside.” Which means that the eaters are susceptible to the weather and, if they can’t keep cool, will eat less than normal. “Last year, Nathan’s was brutal,” Salem says. The women, who competed first, let the men know that it was very, very hot on the stage, so “we iced ourselves down. That’s why the numbers didn’t go so low for the men’s last year. We got that insight from the women and we were preparing for the worst. If you look at the tapes, you’ll notice a lot of us had wet shirts because we were trying to stay cool.”


It’s probably not a surprise that the typical human stomach can’t hold the 30 or more hot dogs that competitive eaters routinely wolf down. After watching that first Nathan’s competition, Salem decided he was going to try, right then, to eat 20 hot dogs and buns. “I did three or four and I was like, ‘I’m done,’” he says. “I couldn’t continue.” He needed to increase his stomach capacity, which he did by drinking large amounts of water. Salem worked his way up to a gallon, which he can now drink in under a minute—and does so almost daily when he’s preparing for a competition.

“You have to go up and up and up,” he says. “It’s conditioning. Most people can work their way up to a gallon in a month. A gallon weighs eight pounds. In the majority of contests, we’re not consuming that amount of capacity. Joey Chestnut will consume maybe 5 or 6 pounds. If you do a gallon of water, you’re competitive with most of the eaters.” (He stresses that this strategy is for the pros—you definitely shouldn’t try it at home!)

Two or three times a week, Salem steams 6 to 8 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower, adds “a couple of pounds of sauerkraut,” and eats it in about 20 minutes—“at a fast pace, but not in contest mode”—then washes it down with a gallon of water.


When you’re in an eating contest, you don’t want your jaw to get tired. Some competitive eaters will chew up to six pieces of gum at a time to strengthen their jaw muscles, Salem says, but he has another method: He chews on silicone tubes that doctors recommend for patients who’ve had jaw surgery or for kids with autism who need to chew on things. “I bought three of these things in different strengths and I chew on them two or three times a week or so,” he says.


Though he now regularly competes in triathlons, a couple of years ago, Salem didn’t know how to swim—and learning how helped to up his competitive eating game, taking him from 20 hot dogs to 25. “In swimming, there’s a rhythm to breathing,” he says. “You have to understand you’re going to breathe every two or three strokes. If you don’t stick to that, you’ll throw yourself off. There’s a similar rhythm in eating: Maybe you breathe every hotdog, or every two hot dogs. But you need to figure out your rhythm and stick to it. Otherwise you’ll get out of breath and you’ll have to take a step back and relax, and it takes a few seconds to get your heart rate down. When you’re talking like 25, 30 hot dogs, and you’re breaking every three or four hot dogs for 30 seconds, that’s 30 percent of the contest. You don’t have that time to waste.”


Salem videotapes both his practice sessions and his competitions to analyze his hand speed and technique. “Lots of times, eaters—myself included—think we’re going a lot faster than we actually are,” he says. “When you videotape yourself, you reveal what’s actually happening. Am I chewing too long? Am I messing with the hot dog too long? Should I be breaking [the food] faster? It’s a lot of analysis and just tweaking.” He’ll often put his video side-by-side with another competitive eater to see how he can improve. Mastering hand speed and efficiency is a huge part of being successful. “If your hand speed is too fast, you’re not swallowing fast enough, then you’re just creating a traffic jam in your mouth,” he says. Still, “you have to master the entire process before you work on that.”


A couple of years ago, Salem found that he was having a mental block in competitions that was preventing him from being the best he could be. So he went to a hypnotherapist, and discovered that part of the reason he was getting hung up was because he was afraid of vomiting. “I had to get over that fear,” Salem says. “My hypnotherapist put lots of positive things in my head to help me figure it out.”

Because of the sessions, Salem made the decision to go to a biofeedback specialist, who gave him exercises to do that would help him suppress his gag reflex. “A lot of the suppression training has to do with brushing my tongue really far back, every morning and night,” he explains. “It’s part of my daily routine. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

There are other methods that competitive eaters use, too, including meditation. “Badlands Booker swears by it,” Salem says. “He’ll meditate just to overall have strength over his mind and to keep anxiety down. Just like in sports—you can be top of your game physically, but if you get anxious, and your heart races out of control, then you’re a mess. Same thing happens here.”


You’ll notice that most competitive eaters are very fit—and that’s because they have to be. “If you look at the top eaters—like the top 15 or 20—they’re all in shape, with very rare exceptions,” Salem says. “The fittest eaters have low body fat percentage and work out a lot. I’ve continually worked out and decreased my body fat over the past years and I’ve seen my performance increase from 20 to 25, and now I’m at 30 hot dogs.”

There is a theory about why it is that skinnier people make better competitive eaters. “It’s called the fat belt theory,” Salem says. “It started off as a joke, but there’s a lot of truth to it. If you think about it, there’s only a finite amount of space [in your abdomen]. You’re constrained by your ribcage—that’s all the space that you have to work with. If you have fat, it can hinder your ability to eat and fill the space up.” Though it is just a theory, Salem says there is anecdotal evidence to support it; Badlands Booker, who at one point weighed 400 pounds, saw his totals go from 25 dogs and buns to 40 when he dropped some weight (and then saw the totals drop back down when he gained the weight back). “Certainly no one can argue that being fat is a competitive advantage,” Salem says. “There’s nothing you can gain out of it.”


Eaters compete in categories: Counting foods, weighed foods, technique, and capacity. “Counting foods are like hot dogs. Either you eat a hot dog and bun or you didn’t,” Salem says. “Wings we do by weight—because you might only eat half of it—so they weigh the bucket before and after.”

The hardest category to compete in is capacity, which uses foods like chili. “If you’re consuming something that’s more fluid, it’s purely about people that have trained a lot for capacity level,” Salem says. “Joey Chestnut can do two gallons of chili, which weighs more than water. So if he’s doing two gallons of chili, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 19 to 20 pounds. Capacity is the hardest contest to win against someone who has a lot of experience. Nobody new is ever able to win a capacity contest unless they're some kind of freak.”

The best bet for a novice competitive eater is technique, where foods like wings, corn on the cob, and oysters are used. “It’s purely about how fast can you do it,” Salem says. “Have you developed an innovation where you can strip the meat a lot faster than everybody else? That’s where there’s real opportunity for someone who is a newcomer to break in.”

Within those categories, there’s further specialization—sweet, spicy, and salty foods. Some eaters are better at one than at the others. “Jalapenos are very rough,” Salem says. “I don’t like spicy foods in general—I don’t have a tolerance for it, and I'm not good at it. The intense heat ... I just get sweaty. But I’m pretty good at sweet contests.”


“You know when you go to Thanksgiving and everything feels tight? You don’t want that,” Salem says. “I wore spandex two years ago and all the guys made fun of me, so I don’t do that anymore. I wear shorts that have an elastic waistband. I usually wear a size medium shirt, but in competition, I might wear like a large. You just wanna be as loose as possible. You don’t want to think about the constriction of your clothes.”


Attention, everyone who fasts on Thanksgiving Day: You’re doing it wrong. Even competitive eaters have something in their stomachs before they go into a competition. “When you wake up in the morning, you haven’t eaten for 7 or 8 hours,” Salem says. “You’re tired. More than anything, you want the energy to go into the contest. You have to think of it like a sport. You can’t go into a marathon without having some food in your stomach because you need the energy to go through it.”

To prepare, Salem cuts down on solid foods two days before the contest; instead, he eats shakes, vegetables blended into soups, and soft fruits like bananas and oranges. “It’s not just about your stomach; it’s about your intestines,” he says. “You want to empty out your entire space as much as possible.” The morning of a contest, he’ll drink a strong cup of coffee—“to make sure I’m clear”—then go on an hour-long run. After a shower, he’ll drink one last gallon of water, which he’ll pee out completely before the contest, and have a piece of fruit. “That’s enough to get my body in the mode,” he says. “Caffeine starts me up and clears me out; the water hydrates me; and that piece of fruit or a smoothie is enough to carry me through 5 or 6 hours before.” He’ll also pre-game some fiber gummies to help him digest later.


“When you’re sitting, you’re half-way compressed,” Salem says. “It’s the worst situation to be in. Standing up helps open up the space and you can move around. You don’t wanna squander all the training that you've done over the past few months by limiting your space by being leaned over.”


“It’s just a way to get things down into your stomach, and quickly,” Salem says. “You don’t wanna overdo it. Liquid takes up space and it weighs quite a bit.” If dunking is allowed—as it is at Nathan’s—he’ll dunk the whole hot dog bun before eating it. But dunking isn’t always permitted, and picking up a cup to sip wastes time, cuts down on hand speed and efficiency, and usually causes an eater to consume more liquid—so when he can’t dunk, Salem has to be mindful of those things.

Depending on what the food in a contest is, competitors will have different liquid options: Whole fat milk, which quells the effects of capsaicin, for spicy food; sugar-free flavored drinks or water for salty foods; and coffee or tea for sweet foods (Salem prefers decaf tea). Alcohol isn’t permitted, and soda is a bad choice. “You don’t want anything with carbonation because that’s going to start bubbling up in your stomach," Salem says. "You’ll have to deal with burping every few minutes."

Temperature is also really important. “When you drink cold water, your throat tends to tense up,” Salem says. “You don’t want to introduce any kind of stress. So we’ll use warm water, around body temperature.”


They all take up space that might otherwise be occupied by whatever you’re eating. Salem specifically says that wannabe competitive eaters should avoid mustard, which, when combined with warm water, can lead to some … unpleasant results. “If you down a lot of it, it’s like castor oil,” Salem says. “I was in a contest with this guy—a total amateur. There was Nathan's Spicy Mustard and Ketchup sitting up front for branding purposes, and he was putting it all over his hot dogs. All the sudden he spit it up. It hit the back of my head, which is shaved, and it started burning! It was a mess.”


Competitive eaters are not Fletcherizing. In fact, they're doing pretty much the opposite, chewing only two or three times before swallowing. “You’re just getting it to the point of getting it down,” Salem says. In a Nathan’s contest, each plate has five hot dogs and buns, three on the bottom and two on top. He separates them, grabs two hot dogs and breaks them in half, and starts eating. Meanwhile, with his other hand, he’s dunking a hot dog bun in the cup of water and, as he eats that, he breaks two more hot dogs. And he does this, over and over, as fast as he can. “It’s a race against your body,” he says. “After minute three, you start to slow down. If you’re pacing the same number throughout, then something is really wrong. You’re not going to get a very high number. You need to just go balls to the wall and then cruise as best as you can to the finish.”


“The pros know that whatever you get into your mouth before regulation is over counts,” Salem says. “But you have to swallow it within 30 seconds after. So you should actively try and fill every corner of your mouth; it’s called ‘chipmunking.’ Don’t overdo it—you still have to be able to swallow it in 30 seconds—but you will be at a serious disadvantage if you don’t do it. It’s the difference between winning and losing.”


Unbelievable though it may seem, sometimes competitive eaters do tie—and in that event, they’ll decide the terms of the eat-off, usually quantity of food or time. “It’s usually better to just do time," Salem says. "If we hit our max in regulation—10 minutes—and we talk about eating five more hot dogs, it might not happen. So it’s usually better to choose time. That time is going to happen no matter what.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.