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 performance.

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.

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