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10 Questions for Olympic Diet Expert Dr. Louis E. Grivetti

Published in Gourmet Live 07.25.12
Learn what foods fueled the Olympians of old—and how athletes' diets have changed—in this interview with noted UC Davis nutrition historian by Gourmet Live's Carolina Santos-Neves
Q & A with Olympic Diet Expert Dr. Louis E. Grivetti

Victory crowning an athlete with an olive branch. Detail from vase, 5th century B.C.

Today, the topic of Olympic eating seems to be getting a lot of play in the media. Witness the recent frenzy over Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has denied rumors of a 12,000-calorie-a-day diet, but whose actual consumption—hefty, as you might imagine, considering the rigors of training and his London ambitions—continues to fascinate. But have Olympic athletes always eaten on an epic scale? What did the original Olympians of ancient Greece eat? We were curious, so we turned to University of California at Davis nutrition professor emeritus Louis E. Grivetti, PhD, who has published multiple articles on the history of Olympians and their diets.

Gourmet Live: Is there any record of what the athletes ate to prepare for the first Olympics, in 776 B.C.?

Louis E. Grivetti: There are no records this old. The first surviving record and mention of the diet of ancient Olympic athletes comes from Diogenes Laërtius, a Greek writer who flourished about a thousand years later, in the early decades of the third century. In his text, he quotes Philostratus [A.D. 170–c. 245], who compared and contrasted athletic diets through the years:

"These athletes [in olden times] washed in rivers and springs…learned to sleep on the ground…others on beds made of straw they gathered from the field. Their food was bread made from barley and unleavened loaves of unsifted wheat. For meat they ate the flesh of oxen, bulls, goats, and deer; they rubbed themselves with the oil of the wild olive. This style of living made them free from sickness and they kept their youth a long time."

GL: What more can you tell us about the early athletes' diets and how they evolved in ancient times?

LG: The diet of Greek and Roman athletes was highly variable, depending upon historical period, and ranged from regimens based on cereals, cheese, and fruits [figs, grapes] to a nearly all-meat [lamb, goat, beef, pork, doves, pigeons, sparrows] diet. Philostratus implies that in later years doctors to the Olympic athletes introduced fish, pork, and refined breads sprinkled with poppy seeds to the diet.

The diets of both Greek and Roman athletes would have developed in a Mediterranean pattern and would basically have been similar—with much of the food smothered in olive oil.

The question of fish is interesting. The training site at Elis [the city-state where the original Games were held]; is inland from the sea—in the earliest Greek classics, the heroes of Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey did not eat fish, as this was considered a "lesser" food.

As to how these diets evolved, Philostratus provided a clue that the diets of ancient athletes changed through time and became "fancy," which would be another way of saying that the diet patterns didn't follow a strict regimen but probably catered to the likes and whims of the individual athletes. Philostratus condemned the occupation of "cook," which he implies developed merely to please human palates. He also suggests that such chefs to ancient athletes prepared dishes that turned the athletes into gluttons.

GL: Do we have an idea of how much those early athletes ate during training and competition as compared with athletes today? Are there any records of portion sizes?

LG: There is no evidence, but one may assume that the ancient athletes ate more food—and better variety of food—than the everyday nonathletic Greek or Roman. The only mention regarding portion size is the oft-told story regarding the renowned wrestler Milo of Croton [6th century B.C.], who is said to have carried an ox into the stadium at Olympia, killed the ox, and then consumed it all—a feat that lies more in the realm of folklore than actual consumption patterns.

GL: Were any foods restricted in the ancient athletes' diets?

LG: None to my knowledge. However, there is a hint of a restriction in the following quotation from the Stoic Epictetus [A.D. 55–135], which is among my favorite all-time quotations from the past:

"You say 'I want to win at Olympia.' Look at what is involved both before and after, and only then, if it is to your advantage, begin the task. If you do, you will have to obey instructions, eat according to regulations, keep away from desserts, exercise on a fixed schedule at definite hours, in both heat and cold; you must not drink cold water nor can you have a drink of wine whenever you want. You must hand yourself over to your coach exactly as you would to a doctor."

GL: What about drinks? Would athletes simply drink water for hydration?

LG: I would expect that water mixed with wine would have been consumed by some athletes. The water—flowing from the nearby river at the site—would have been contaminated and could have led to gastrointestinal problems. By adding a little wine, the alcohol would have killed off some of the pathogens—but not all.

GL: Were food and drink served at the early Olympics?

LG: There is no evidence that food and drink were served to spectators. The assumption is that spectators (only adult men, as women were forbidden upon pain of death to attend the games) would have "camped out" and brought their own food or scrounged at the nearby town settlement.

GL: What can you tell us about the diets of modern-day Olympians? How have they have evolved over, say, the last century?

LG: This is difficult, because several factors are at work: One, science-based nutrition-related information, and, two, antidotal, hunch-based efforts by trainers and charlatans with little to no training in nutrition science.

The Berlin 1936 Games provide a snapshot of athletic diets at the time: white bread, bananas, tomatoes, and beefsteak. Today, and for nearly all of the post–World War II Olympic Games, different theories have come and gone; some have efficacy, while others lie more in the realm of magic, folklore, and superstition.

In the late 1960s and early '70s it was discovered that "carbo-loading" worked to improve performance in long-distance/long-endurance races (for example, marathons, cross-country skiing), but carbo-loading would have had no effect on short-term/quick-action sports like sprints and track and field events. Then caffeine came along, which does have a positive effect on elite long-distance runners but would have had no impact on quick-action sports.

There has also been focus on protein during the past 20 to 30 years, with the highly touted claim that protein builds muscle. This is only partially true.

GL: So how much of a role does nutrition play in the performance of elite athletes?

LG: It is commonly said among the colleagues I know and respect that athletic excellence is 60 percent genetic (height, lung capacity, muscle type, and the like); 20 percent training; 10 percent nutrition; and 10 percent intangibles coupled with adrenalin (knowing that you are ahead in a race, or knowing the person in front of you is fading). Also part of that 10 percent is luck and chance.

GL: There was a recent article in The New York Times about whether Olympic athletes can be vegans. What is your opinion, given that, as you mentioned earlier, some athletes in antiquity ate an almost vegan diet?

LG: So long as the vegan athlete takes in all the essential nutrients (which can be a problem for iron, folic acid, B12) or takes a supplement, I see no reason why they cant be elite athletes as well.

GL: So is there a lesson to be learned here for other athletes—not Olympians, but perhaps professionals or the more casual athletes among us?

LG: Too many nonelite athletes fall into the trap of sales pitches for this or that product, when the real effort should be spent in proper training. There is no magic elixir that will guarantee victory—well, perhaps not exactly, if one uses steroids. The key is stress and adaptation. You can have the best diet in the world but if your genetics are not up to snuff then you will not make the U.S. Olympic team. And if you overtrain and become injured, that may be it as well.