Did the most successful ancient Olympian eat a full grown bull in a single sitting and was his trainer a devout vegan? What did other ancient Greek athletes eat? The interaction between diet and exercise were of great importance to them, just as it is to us now.
For some time, I have studied athletic training and competitions in Ancient Greece. I believe that we are probably now closer to their culture of physical activity than at any time since the second century AD, but we can still learn more from their practices and philosophies. In this Athletismos series of my blog, I will share some of what I have discovered and contemplate the lessons that can be learnt from them.
It is not difficult to imagine that both the diets and the lifestyles of athletes two or three thousand years ago were somewhat different from ours. Besides this, as I often point out in these articles, practices varied across the different areas and points in time. However, we do know some things about the diets of ordinary ancient Greeks and the athletes in particular, and this knowledge can enlighten our current nutrition as well as providing us with some hearty intellectual nourishment.
The general Greek diet was simple and they ate three meals a day – breakfast, a small lunch and a large dinner. They ate bread and pancakes made from wheat and barley, and these provided carbohydrates for energy. They also ate various legumes and vegetables, especially lentils and beans. Essential animal protein came from cheese and eggs. They also ate meat, though less than we tend to eat now, from poultry, fish and pigs, largely depending on their local agriculture. Oxen were slaughtered for sacrifice and eaten on those special occasions. For sweets, they were treated to dried fruit, especially figs, raisins and pomegranates, and honey. The drink, of course, was wine. Finally, the olive was perhaps the most important staple, eaten as an appetiser or pressed for oil and used for cooking and dressing, giving them a plentiful dose of unsaturated fat.
Initially, the athlete’s diet was a distilled version of this. It was said that they would simply eat coarse flatbread, cheese, red meat and figs, accompanied with wine and olive oil. (The oil had other uses for athletes too, being rubbed into their skin for massage and protection from the elements, and it was often awarded as a prize.) This regular diet provided all the nutrients the athlete would need and by focussing on wholesome, unrefined foods this kept energy levels stable and sufficient for exercise.
Things changed when athletes became more professional and thus became wealthier. Some employed cooks and even pastry chefs to provide more indulgent foods. They replaced wholegrain breads with white breads flavoured with poppy seeds and introduced excesses of fish which were curiously omitted from earlier athletes’ diets. There is even mention of them only eating ‘pigs fed with cornelian cherries and acorns’.
Heavy meat diets also became a trend. In fact, some athletes were famed as much for their ability to consume meat as for their athletic feats. It was Milo of Croton who allegedly ate a whole ox in a single sitting. The story goes that he found a newborn calf as a boy and carried it on his shoulder. He carried it every day for four years, becoming ever stronger as the bull grew and then, finally, decided he had trained enough and devoured the burden. Aside from this, his daily diet was apparently 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread and 18 pints of wine.
Interestingly, around the time of his second Olympic victory in wrestling, Milo became a friend and student of Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician. Pythagoras probably trained Milo as well as his other disciples, developing the body in order to develop the mind and soul. (This was a common theory among philosophers, as I have already pointed out.)
He imposed various dietary restrictions on his disciples – most notably banning beans, saying that they bore a resemblance or perhaps even a soul of a human womb. Some have thought that he was a vegetarian or a vegan and that he thought this would purify the body. An alternative theory is that he permitted only a few types of meat from sacrificial animals but prohibited fish, poultry and pork. We cannot know for sure, either way. When he discovered his theorem about right-angled triangles, he is said to have sacrificed either an ox or some bags of flour.
At any rate, the contrast between Milo’s meat feasts and Pythagoras’ peculiar abstention reveals that even among companions there were opposite extremes. However, by the time of these specific fads, athletes were beginning to be seen as gluttonous and greedy. Even then, people were advocating a return the old times when athletes’ diets were simpler.
Today we have access to an enormous range of gastronomical schemes and many of these can be highly effective. However, the simple diet of wholegrains, dairy, fruit, meat and oil gave the ancient athletes everything they needed for excellent health and fitness and we can easily adopt it too.