How Much Pasta Can You Eat Before You Die?

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It turns out, it is possible to eat until your stomach ’splodes. Patrizia/Flickr

I once met a competitive eater from New Jersey who didn't care about winning. He just wanted the free food. If crowds liked to cheer as he pushed gravy-lubed turkey dinners down his throat, so be it. Usually, he'd finish somewhere in the middle—good enough to keep competing but not to become the Garden State's Kobayashi. This gluttonous ambivalence to competition always struck me as unbelievable. At least until I heard about Olive Garden's Pasta Pass.

A marketing stunt now entering its third year, the Pasta Pass is a limited-edition $100 card that offers free Never Ending Pasta Bowls and soda for seven straight weeks. It's less a deal than it is a grim challenge. It offers the irritable bowel syndrome that comes with competitive eating but none of the glory.

The Pasta Pass was met with great fanfare. On Olive Garden's website, a counter in a font made to resemble bunches of pasta ticked down to the start of the promotion on Monday. When the passes were released, all 21,000 sold out in one second. This resulted in a booming black market for Pasta Passes among those desperate to get their carb fix. A quick eBay search found multiple passes, some selling for as much as $350.

With the passes now unleashed upon the world, it's worth wondering: What are the upper limits of pasta consumption? An even more entertaining question: How much pasta can a human eat before dying?

I asked Candice Schreiber, a clinical dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, if eating a pasta dish, say, twice per day (as a baseline) would be a good idea. "Absolutely not," she says, laughing. "A plate alone is probably close to triple the amount of fat and salt you should have in a day."

What would happen to people if they consumed, say, two bowls of pasta every day for a week? "They probably wouldn't feel too good," Schreiber says. "They probably are going to be sluggish…. They're probably not going to feel very energized, and want to lounge around and sleep all day."

In other words, an average NFL Sunday. I went in for the kill: How much pasta before one meets the angry judgment of their god?

"I'm not sure if there's an exact number, and everybody's body is going to be different," Schreiber says.

That makes sense, but it's not a very satisfying answer, so I scanned the internet for medical oddities. It turns out that it is possible to eat until your stomach 'splodes. It's just exceptionally rare. An NBC News report found two such instances. In 1991, someone's stomach suffered a "spontaneous rupture" because of "an overindulgence in food and drink." In 2003, a 49-year-old man's stomach burst after "excessive overeating," according to doctors. Neither report mentioned fettuccine Alfredo, so I kept searching.

The human stomach can hold about 1.5 liters—3, tops. Pass 5 liters, and your gut will most certainly burst like a dollar store water balloon. To put this into perspective, 5 liters is about 11 pounds of pasta. By some estimates, enough to feed 60 people. Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, a very large man, eats about 10 pounds of food in an entire day.

While it isn't technically impossible, eating this much pasta at one sitting would be a superhuman feat, requiring one to overcome the gag reflex and intense nausea. It would be a hero's death.

All of this is mostly ghoulish wishful thinking, since most customers with a Pasta Pass show surprising restraint. "We saw that Pasta Pass holders came to our restaurants on average 28 times over the seven-week promotion," says Jessica Dinon, an Olive Garden representative. "Overall, guests—not just those with a Pasta Pass—ordered an average of fewer than two bowls."

Except for one man. Though Dinon did not respond to my inquiry about whether a customer has died in an Olive Garden restaurant by overdosing on noodles, she did link me to a news story about Alan Martin.

Martin, a minister from Burlington, North Carolina, purchased a Pasta Pass in 2014 and proceeded to dine at Olive Garden twice a day, like a strip mall John Henry. He ate 115 meals with his pass and did not die. In fact, he claims to have lost 4 pounds.

"I can't believe I get to eat like this every day," he told Fox8. "This is great."

The human body is an amazingly resilient, disgusting thing.