Ancient Olympians Followed "Atkins" Diet, Scholar Says

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
August 10, 2004
The 2004 Athens Olympic Games begin on Friday. Over the course of the
18-day event, 24,000 athletes, coaches, and officials will wolf down
almost every food imaginable, from Brazilian fish stew to Asian
stir-fried vegetables. Most competitors will follow highly specialized
diets and consume sports drinks, gels, and energy bars to boost their

The modern Olympics have radically changed from their debut in 776 B.C., when the cook Koroibos won the only sporting event: a footrace. But even then, ancient athletes were concerned with what they ate—and some even followed a meat-heavy, Atkins-style diet.

Now food historians are studying ancient Greek and Roman texts to learn about the diet of the first Olympians—and about the roots of Mediterranean cuisine.

Archaeologists have been able to uncover food remains from ancient Egyptian sites, thanks to the region's arid climate, said Louis Grivetti, a food historian from the University of California at Davis.

And while few food remains have been found in Greek excavations, "there is a wealth of information available through ancient Greek and Latin texts," the historian said.

Grivetti is focusing his own research on the ancient text The Deipnosophists (also known as The Philosophers' Banquet), a 15-volume tale of a lengthy feast written around A.D. 200.

The writer, Athenaeus, was a Greek from Naucratis, an ancient city southeast of present-day Alexandria, Egypt.

In his work, Athenaeus describes an unusual banquet, one where diners talk about where food comes from, discuss its quality, and note its geographic source. The meal is a feast for gourmands, and each person provides the literary citations for his comment, Grivetti said.

While 1,500 texts are cited by Athenaeus, only 15 percent of those exist today. Taken together, however, these remaining works present a picture of the finest in Mediterranean cuisine, along with insights into how food was prepared, eaten, and incorporated into daily life and thought.

Ancient "Atkins" Diet

In the time of ancient Greece, the diet of regular folk consisted mainly of breads, vegetables, and fruits. Fish was the most common meat eaten in this seafaring region.

Ancient Olympians came from the upper social strata in Greece, since wealthy families could feed their children more protein-rich legumes and meats to build muscle.

The earliest records point to a cheese- and fruit-based diet for the first Olympic athletes, but somewhere along the line, dietary emphasis shifted to meat, Grivetti said.

While much of what's known about the diet of ancient Olympians comes from other sources, the Deipnosophists tells the tale of the wrestler Milon of Croton, who won competitions at six different Olympics:

Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds [9 kilograms] of meat and as many of bread, and he drank three pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.

—Theodorus of Hierapolis, On Athletic Contests, cited by Athenaeus in The Deipnosophists

According to food historian Francine Segan, an ancient Olympic runner won several competitions while following a meat-only diet. "This started a meat-only craze," Segan said, noting that other diet tips for athletes included avoiding bread right before competition and eating dried figs.

Segan studied The Deopnosophists and other ancient texts while researching her latest cookbook, The Philosopher's Kitchen, published this month by Random House.

The food historian said she became interested in ancient Mediterranean foods while researching an earlier cookbook that recreated the food of Shakespeare's time. "During the Renaissance people were trying to rediscover the ancients," she said. "So I thought, Let's go back to the source."

Segan said one of the surprising things she learned while researching her latest book was that many common foods of today, like corn, chocolate, and vanilla, are products of the New World.

Dishes in The Philosopher's Kitchen recreate cuisine from ingredients ancient cultures had available. For example, Segan's recipe for tart cherry lasagna reflects what was available in ancient Greece. While tomatoes might seem like a Mediterranean tradition, they became incorporated into the cuisine much later, she said.

Today's Olympic Feast

The cuisine served to athletes, coaches, and officials participating in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games will be international in flavor, with restaurants serving everything from Brazilian fish stew to Asian-inspired stir-fried vegetables. But the 6,000-seat main Olympic dining hall will also highlight Greek dishes such as halva, baklava, and spanakopita.

Aramark, a U.S.-based company which is running 2004 Olympics food operations in partnership with the Greek company Dasko, plans to use nearly 3,000 gallons (11,000 liters) of olive oil—chalkidike, a peppery olive oil from northern Greece; and kalamata, a light, fruity olive oil from southern Greece.

Greek cheeses will also feature prominently on the menu. Fifty-two thousand pounds (24,000 kilograms) of cheese, including feta, kasseri, and houlimi, have been ordered for Olympic feasting. Greek farmers and ranchers will provide most of the vegetables, meats, and fruits consumed at the Olympic Village.

For more Olympic news, scroll down.

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