The untold truth of Joey Chestnut

When you have a question about food, you take that question to Joey "Jaws" Chestnut. The Kentucky-born competitive eater recently weighed in on the long-running debate over the classification of an iconic American favorite: the hot dog. Chestnut shot down those claiming it was a sandwich — and as the no. 1 ranked competitive eater in the world, he should know. 

Chestnut has ploughed through countless hot dogs throughout his career (he actually has them shipped to his house by the thousand for training), but they aren't the only food he eats competitively. He's taken part in everything from kimchi eating contests in South Korea to cow brain taco marathons in Minneapolis. He's now the face of face-stuffing in the United States and beyond, but how exactly did he go from a kid with an appetite to the world's biggest eater? This is the untold truth of Joey Chestnut.

He ate a lot as a child

Long before he earned the nickname "Jaws" from Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas (a world record setting eater of hard boiled eggs), Chestnut was just a hungry kid who loved his food. He has spoken openly about his love for his parents in interviews, praising them for the way they raised him, his two sisters and three brothers, two of whom have gone on to become police officers. "[Mom] raised six kids to be 100 percent independent and work for everything we achieve," he told Vanity Fair. "I mean, we don't expect anything for free."

In another interview with GQ, Chestnut recalled just how much he loved his mom's home cooking, even if it wasn't quite enough to fill him up. "She would make a ton of pasta and I would just eat so much of her pasta when I got home on Friday. And then we would go out to eat. There's an awesome burger place not far from my house. So I'd go and get burgers and pie with my little brother."

He trained as a civil engineer

Chestnut entered his first competitive contest in 2005 when his younger brother Willy convinced him to take part in a deep-fried asparagus eating tournament. He blew away the competition, downing six pounds of the stuff in just 11 minutes and making a name for himself as an up-and-coming eater, though his studies were still his top priority at the time. "It was hard for me to take competitive eating serious at first," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune, though before long he was taking it a lot more seriously than the civil engineering degree he was doing at San Jose State University.

"If I wasn't doing this, I'd be working in construction management or be a project manager for a general contractor," he said. "It was a hard decision to give up a normal job. I worked hard to get through school. You go from building a fire station to an eating contest." 

In the end, it was the feeling of entertaining the crowds that got him hooked on the eating game. "When I made people happy, I became addicted to that."

Doctors have told him to stop

When you eat at least 420 hot dogs a month just to train for an event where you'll consume as many as you can in 10 minutes, a trip to the doctor might seem a bit daunting, but not for Chestnut. The American food star claims his body was "built to eat 68 hot dogs" and not break a sweat, but not every medical professional has agreed with him on that. "Well, some doctors are very close-minded," he told GQ. "They're like, 'Oh, it's really unhealthy,' and this and that. Well, alright, I know it's not healthy. Running marathons isn't healthy."

Eventually, Chestnut came across a doctor who actually believed his lifestyle wasn't going to cause him any health problems. "My doctor, he didn't seem at all worried about anything like that. I was like, 'What about the stomach rupturing?' He was like, 'Well, do you do drugs or anything?' I'm like, 'No, I don't do drugs.' 'Well, your stomach's not going rupture.' I really appreciated his confidence. A couple of times I think he could be wrong. But hopefully he's right."

He developed a hot dog diet

How does a person consume such insane amounts of food and manage to still fit through their front door? Chestnut has developed his own diet that allows him to continually work his stomach in preparation for competitions while also maintaining a reasonable overall weight, and it's pretty straight forward. "It's hot dogs, protein supplements, water," he told GQ. "After every practice, I can feel when I'm pretty much digested. And during that time, I'm just taking protein supplements. And then I'm drinking tons of lemon water, pretty much just do a cleanse."

He takes his training schedule so seriously that he refused to eat a S'mores covered hot dog during an awkward radio interview with CBS Sports, though he does like to indulge a little during his down time. "I'll go out with all the eaters and people of whatever city I'm in, and just drinking, partying on Saturday night—doing that once a week really puts it on." According to Chestnut, he will still be making pitchers of beer disappear long after most people have given up, though his preferred drink is a Jameson whiskey. "You got to get something that's going to penetrate after all that food."

He's popular with the ladies

ESPN recently named Chestnut one of the all-time greats, listing him alongside legends of basketball, baseball and ice hockey in a tweet recognizing athletes who have accumulated the most title wins in their field. While he doesn't earn anywhere near what some of the top sportsmen in America do, Chestnut does make a comfortable living doing what he does. The top prize at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is a cool $10,000, but eaters of Chestnut's stature also see their wallets fattened by personal appearance fees, endorsements, and sponsorship deals — he was earning close to a quarter of a million dollars annually circa 2010 and has the record to command a lot more in fees today.  

Even in the world of competitive eating, fame and fortune attracts attention. As Chestnut's exposure and net worth continue to increase, so does his standing with some members of the opposite sex, something he openly admits to. "Women like winners," he told GQ, but wouldn't comment on the ones that flock to his events in droves. "I wouldn't call them groupies, but there's definitely been... Yeah, there's fans. I'll leave it at that."

He has to go to the bathroom a lot

In most walks of life, winning a competition means a night of celebration is in store, but for competitive eaters, the hours after a contest are usually spent in the bathroom. Every competitor deals with the aftermath of a competition in different ways: Tim "Eater X" Janus, who finished a distant second behind Chestnut at Nathan's in 2012, told Deadspin you just "gotta live with the consequences of your actions," whereas third-placed finisher Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti revealed that he never uses the porta potties put on by the event because "they might just explode."

As far as Chestnut is concerned, as soon as the contest is over and his interviews are done, it's back to his hotel room for a date with the toilet. "I sleep, I drink liquid, run to the bathroom. Nature's gonna call," he told GQ before being pressed about the exact number of times he has to go. "I'd say I'm happy if it happens less than eight times. It could be around 10 times. It's weird the way the body works. The human body's amazing."

He rejects claims he encourages obesity

Twenty-five U.S. States have an obesity rate of 30 percent or higher and the problem has been described as an epidemic by some news outlets — statistics that are often thrown in Chestnut's face by those who oppose the idea of competitive eating. In July 2017, on Chestnut's 24th birthday, activists set up a stand outside to give away free vegan hot dogs, and five people were taken into custody after attempting to unveil a large banner protesting the event, though it went ahead as planned and hundreds upon hundreds of hot dogs were consumed by both competitors and onlookers. If you ask Chestnut about those who oppose the event, he'll tell you that we all have the right to enjoy our food.

"There's nothing pretty about competitive eating," he told Vanity Fair. "It might be uncouth, but it is fun and it is lighthearted. When you narrow it down, how many real pleasures are there in life? There's only four the way I count it: There's eating, there's laughing, there's making love and there's the accomplishment of achievement and feeling proud. Maybe in America there's more of an emphasis on food than there should be. But when I look out at the audience during a competition, some people are shocked, but most people are smiling."

He's a world record setter

Chestnut became the eater to beat in 2007 when he dethroned six-time hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, a renowned Japanese contestant known in competitive eating circles as the man with the kamikaze esophagus. Chestnut went on to set world records for eating ribs, shrimp cocktail, matzoh balls, hard boiled eggs, and steak to name just a handful of menu items. The most bizarre food he's ever eaten competitively or otherwise was during a zombie-themed pub crawl in Minneapolis, in which he chowed down on cow brain tacos.

"It sounds awful, but they were seared with garlic so they were pretty tasty," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "It was real cow brain, so it was veiny and gelatinous." He managed to put away 54 of the things in just eight minutes and gave his compliments to the chef. "They did a good job cooking them. It was kind of like a really, really soft pork. The only weird part was it had a little bit of a metallic taste. It was kind of fatty and it wasn't bad."

What's next for Chestnut?

Chestnut has been back in the headlines lately, winning his 10th world title and smashing his own record at the famous Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, 2017. The legendary contest supposedly began back in 1916 when four immigrants decided the only way they could determine who amongst them was the most patriotic was to have a hot dog eat-off, and they chose Nathan's Famous as the venue. An Irishman named James Mullen reportedly came out on top with 13 hot dogs downed in 12 minutes, unwittingly beginning an annual tradition that captivates countless Americans today.

A hundred and one years later at the 2017 event, Chestnut made the mark established by Mullen seem like child's play. Jaws devoured 72 hot dogs in buns (dipping them into water to help them slide down easier) in 10 minutes in front of thousands fans on New York's Coney Island boardwalk, cementing his place at the top of the competitive eating food chain. If his victory speech is anything to go by, he doesn't plan on stopping at ten world titles, telling reporters after the show that he is always trying to push his body to the limit. "There's no secret, I love to eat. And I love doing it, I love to win."