Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor
The XXX Olympic Games are on in London and all Jamaicans expect our team to do well. Prior to the departure of Jamaica's national team, Grace Foods and Services ensured that the team would be well fed in the pre-Olympic training camp in Birmingham to boost their performance at the Games. While our athletes are accustomed to everyday foods, prepared in the right proportions to meet their nutritional needs, one cannot say they would enjoy the diet of the ancient Olympians.
Research has shown that the ancient Olympians followed the Atkins Diet which has been popularised over the last 30 years. The theory of the Atkins Diet is that the body prefers to utilise carbohydrates (such as grains, cereals, breads and so on) for energy, and will burn them first prior to body fat. Cutting down dramatically on carbohydrates in your diet, forces your body to burn fat for energy.
It was recorded that food played a major part in the lives of the ancient Greeks. Their diet consisted mainly of breads, vegetables and fruits, which are considered as staples and an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. This is associated with a low rate of heart disease in the region. The most common protein consumed then was fish, because of the proximity to the sea for most of the population.
Early Athlete Diets
The diet of early athletes in the ancient Olympics differed radically from today, but the need for protein to build muscle and carbohydrate for energy remains the same as the first recorded Olympics in 776 BC.
Tales of early Olympians may have been exaggerated over time. There is documentation of the mythical strength of the wrestler Milo of Croton who won competitions at six different Olympics. It is reported that he would eat 20 pounds of meat and as many bread, and drank three pitchers of wine. 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 in a single day. If this food intake is to be believed, Milo would have consumed at least 57,000 calories (238,500 kJ) per day!
Meats: The diet of most Greeks and Romans was basically vegetarian and consisted of cereals, fruit, vegetables and legumes, and wine diluted with water. When meat was eaten, the most common source in antiquity was goat in Greece and pork for Romans (Simopoulos 1989).
Cheese and a fruit-based diet were served at the first Olympics but was shifted to a heavy meat-based diet after an Olympian won all of his races while on a meat-based diet. Naturally, other athletes who wanted to win followed suit and embarked on a heavy meat diet. Ancient Olympians came from the upper social strata in Greece and these families could afford to eat more protein-rich legumes and meats to build muscle, and did not have to rely mostly on breads, fruits and vegetables
No bread before performance: Bread was not eaten the night before competition, but dried figs were consumed to build muscle and provide stamina.
Wine: Ancient Greeks had a wine-drinking culture and the Olympians consumed volumes of wine before performance.
Honey was served to provide simple carbohydrates to start the day as well as essential minerals for muscle movement and normal movement of the muscles.
Bread and goat's milk with a small amount of wheat flour mixed with oil were given to provide essential vitamins like B and E and complex carbohydrates to sustain them up to lunchtime.
The goat's milk provide proteins that help build muscles and the enzymes that are involved in all chemical reactions in the cells of the body.
The oil also brings lipids that contain essential fatty acids important for the integrity of the membranes of the cell.
Lunch consisted of dried fruits and figs along with nuts, spelt bread crusts with vegetables, black olives, eggs, goat cheese and honeyed wine. Dried fruits were significant to provide minerals which helped with the absorption of iron to maintain the alimentary canal healthy and permit peristalsis to remove the wastes from the digestive system.
Black olives are rich in vitamin E which is an antioxidant preventing the oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids and, therefore, helps maintain the integrity of the membranes and of the epith-elium. They also contain vitamin A, lipids and carbohydrates.
The honeyed wine provides the athletes with simple carbohydrates such as sucrose and fructose as well as glucose. It also brings some ethanol that can be used in the body to produce energy and, with the honey in the wine, it also brings minerals such as magnesium, calcium and potassium.
Meat on a spit [pork, beef or deer meat] served with aromatic herbs, dark soup with meat, cheese, cooked or raw vegetables, marinated fish and fruits. Grilling the meat removed the excess unsaturated fats that could cause problems in the arteries and blood vessels in general, to prevent circulatory problems, and, therefore, this would avoid circulatory problems that could decrease the performance of the athlete and would keep him in better health.
The marinated fish was rich in proteins, lipids, vitamins such as vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12, niacin (vitamin B3), important for the metabolism of proteins and for the production of energy. If it was sea fish, it would also provide the mineral iodine which is very important for the function of the thyroid.
The diet of the elite athlete today reveals a wide variation in dietary intake and, while lessons can be learned from diets of past Olympians, the recommendations to athletes today have followed scientific findings. For example, today's athletes are aware of the dangers of consuming alcohol versus water and sports beverages for proper fluid management and hydration.