Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Real Gladiator Diet

Source: U of Texas Course Intro To Greece
What did the gladiators eat?

According to Andrew Curry, author of "The Gladiator Diet," an article in the journal Archaeology, Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna, did an analysis of bones of gladiators found in an 1800 year old graveyard near Ephesus, in what is now western Turkey.

"Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii--literally, "barley men." Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein."
Interesting.  The top athletes, with their lives on the line, ate 'very little' animal protein compared to non-athletes.  According to Grossschmidt, gladiators ate this way to get fat:

"The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. "Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat," Grossschmidt explains. "A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight." Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds "look more spectacular," says Grossschmidt. "If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on," he adds. "It doesn't hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators."

What an interesting hypothesis.  Grossschmidt apparently believes that barley and beans are "simple carbohydrates" that "pack on the pounds" making people fat, and that a gladiator would prefer to be fat than lean and muscular.

I challenge Grossschmidt to consume a diet of barley and beans, with less than 10% of his diet as animal products, for a year, to find out if he grows fat eating that way.  Since cooked barley supplies only about 200 calories per cup, he can look forward to eating 6 cups daily just to get to 1200 kcal.  Add one cup of lentils (230 kcal), 4 cups of cooked kale (280 kcal), 4 ounces of sardines (240 kcal), and an ounce of almonds (180 kcal) and you have a nutritionally dense meal plan supplying about 2130 kcal and more than 11 cups of food.  See if you can eat it all, then enough additional to 'pack on the pounds.'

I also suggest that he produce some evidence that gladitors were fat.  He could spend a little time looking at reliefs and other art depicting gladiators of the time.  I found a good selection online from a University of Texas course, Introduction to Greece, here.  I put one of them at the head of this article.  Those men obviously have little subcutaneous or intra-abdominal fat, with ribs, rectus abdominus, deltoids, and upper back muscles clearly defined; they won't qualify as 'fat' by any standard.

Here are a few more from the same source:

Funny, I don't see any fat gladiators.  I didn't cherry-pick, you can look for yourself here.  These depictions don't look that much different from a modern vegetarian combat athlete, Chris Campbell, who won a bronze wrestling in the 1992 Olympics at age 37:
Source:  Information Processing
You can see how fat and weak Campbell got eating all those "simple sugars." 

I can't imagine any reason artists would falsely depict gladiators as lean and muscular, if they really were fat.  I wonder where Grossschmidt got his idea?

Grossschmidt apparently believes that "a lean gladiator would have been dead meat" compared to a fat one. I have to doubt that Grossschmidt has any experience in the fighting arts.  Fat slows you down, making you an easy target.  The goal of a gladiator was to survive, not to put on a good show; only a fool would choose to get fat for battles against armed opponents where you only walk away if you can move faster and hit harder than the other guy.

Grossschmidt also believes that those gladiators had to supplement calcium to their barley and vegetable diet:

"But a diet of barley and vegetables would have left the fighters with a serious calcium deficit. To keep their bones strong, historical accounts say, they downed vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium. Whatever the exact formula, the stuff worked. Grossschmidt says that the calcium levels in the gladiator bones were "exorbitant" compared to the general population. "Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements," he says. "They knew that then, too."
What? Despite having low animal protein intake, and eating a diet based on 'toxic' neolithic barley supplying much-feared gluten, phytates, and other "anti-nutrients" supposed to interfere with calcium absorption, these gladiators had 'exhorbitant' calcium levels in their bones?  Strong bones in agriculturalists?  How could that happen?

Well, let's see if they needed calcium supplements.  Ephesus lies on the west coast of Turkey, near the mouth of the Menderes River, so I will assume the gladiators ate some fish.  I'll build the diet of barley, lentils, kale, olives, acorns, and sardines, all possible foods for those people.  Here's a nutritional analysis of a hypothetical barley diet with less than 10% of calories from sardines:

Click to Enlarge

As you can see, to get to 3400 kcal required by a large, physically active martial artist using swords, tridents, and similar arms, the barley men would have to eat 10 cups of cooked barley in a day.  Now imagine having to eat several more daily to 'pack on the pounds.'  Good luck with that!

With only 4 ounces of sardines (supplying only 236 calories, less than 10% of total) and two cups of lentils, it supplies 116 g of protein, enough for a 220 pound athlete.  The diet supplies energy in the following  proportions: 70/18/12, carbohydrate/fat/protein. It supplies all required nutrients in adequate amounts (most nutrients at 2-4 times the RDA) except vitamin E, which is 77% of RDA, probably adequate for most people eating a diet this low in fat (71 g/d), but we could boost this by exchanging one cup of  barley for one cup of olives (that brings the vitamin E to 97% of RDA and fat to 22% of calories). 

I also tested 3000 calories of this diet by removing 2 cups of barley.  It became 67/20/13 (carb/fat/pro) and still supplied 110 g protein, enough for a 220 pound athlete.  It still supplied at least 100% of the RDA for all listed nutrients except vitamin E, still at 77%.

Now, back to the 'exorbitant' levels of calcium in these athlete's bones. First, ancient athletes were familiar with resistance training, using all types of heavy objects to increase strength.   Physical training with heavy weapons and other sources of resistance stresses the bones, increasing mineral deposition, so we should expect athletes like gladiators to have high bone mineral density.

Second, humans appear to absorb more calcium from some plants, especially cabbage-family green leafy vegetables, than from milk.  In one study humans absorbed a greater proportion of calcium from kale (and probably similar brassica vegetables) (41%) than from milk (32%) [1]. As an aside, Heaney et al found that humans absorbed calcium from leavened whole wheat bread at at higher rate than from milk [2].

Third, we have evidence from other paleo diet research suggesting that a diet with a high ratio of plant to animal protein may promote greater bone mineral density.  Richman et al compared bones of three aboriginal American populations:  Pueblos, Arikaras, and Inuit [3 ].   These groups had similar genetic backgrounds, all descended from the few humans who first populated the Americas. 

Richman et al looked for type II osteons, characteristic of increased bone mineral resorption involved in maintaining physiological homeostasis, such as buffering to maintain the pH of urine in the range safe for kidney tubules.  They found that the Pueblos had the least evidence of this type of remodeling, and Eskimos had four times as many type II osteons as the Pueblos.  The diet of the Pueblos consisted largely (80%) of maize and 90% of plant foods, while the Eskimo diet consisted 90% of meat.  The Arikaras consumed more meat than Pueblo and less than Eskimos, and had twice as many type II osteons the Pueblos.

When I first reviewed this study, I missed the fact that it contradicted the theory that people are less adapted to grains than to meat.  If the antinutrients in grains impair calcium and vitamin D metabolism, the Pueblos should have had the worst bone health because they had the highest cereal grain intake, supposedly blocking vitamin D action and calcium absorption; but in fact they had the lowest markers of resorption. 

We have plenty of evidence that isolated Inuit had severe and early onset osteoporosis [4, 5].  Similar to the Pueblos, largely vegetarian Bantu women eating grain-based diets have extremely low rates of osteoporosis despite very low (200-450 mg/d) intakes of calcium and a high number of pregnancies (~10 per woman) with prolonged breastfeeding [6 ]. 

We have some evidence that a diet with a high ratio of animal protein to vegetable protein increases urinary calcium losses and that this may result in demineralization of the bones [7 , 8 , 9 , 10, among others].  While some consider this research inconclusive so far [11], it seems to me that the bulk of research points in the direction of diets with high ratios of animal protein increasing the risk of bone mineral loss, although the mechanism may be unclear and other factors may modify this risk (resistance training, vitamin D, vitamin K, dietary acid-base ratio, sodium intake, to name a few).  Anyway, it appears possible that the gladiators' high ratio of vegetable to animal protein contributed to their maintaining a high bone mineral density. 

I conclude that a diet of barley, lentils, olives, acorns, green vegetables, and small amount of small fish can provide plenty of calcium, which when combined with hard physical training will produce very dense, strong bones.  Maybe those gladiators did add wood ash or bone meal, but they may have been overdosing on unnecessary calcium, the same way the many modern athletes take unnecessary supplements hoping for greater performance.


Craig said...

Being nice and lean, while undoubtedly an essential attribute in some career paths such as underwear modelling and too, some sports where there are weight divisions and/or competition goes on for extended periods, would have be an extremely deleterious thing to be in possession of when squaring up against a bloke who had spent his whole time getting as heavy and as strong as he could, so that he could take the business end of something metal and pointy and introduce it to your insides. Such a contest would be considered marathon if it lasted more than a handful of minutes. So there is no need to strip off the fat for cardio benefits. But take two men going into the arena, both of approximately the same gross strength, and one is 50 lbs heavier? That's a big bloody difference when two clash. Look for arguments to support your belief that eating a lot the stuff you favor now does not pack on the weight by all means, but employ some real world commonsense about what truly maximizes your chances in a blood and guts physical fight. It ain't looking like the cast of '300'. And it certainly isn't by looking like stylized depictions of artists. Hell, if you're going to go down that road, why not make your next post about the limbo champions of ancient Egypt? After all, look at the art people!

Spencer King said...

Don, just wonderingly if your still practicing IF? If so do you have any problems or find it harder on your new high Carb low fat diet?

Josh Bobbitt said...

1) Are we taking into account the social status of gladiators here? Would they have had access to their own food, or would they have to have eaten what they were given?

2) Do we know that gladiators were actually elite athletes? Were elite athletes really who they were throwing out into the ring to be slaughtered? Sure, they're all incredible athletes when we watch _Gladiator_, but were they really incredible athletes? I'm skeptical.

nothing91 said...


"Interesting. The top athletes, with their lives on the line, ate 'very little' animal protein compared to non-athletes."

What's interesting is your assumption (based your current preconceptions) that their diet was intentional & deliberate. There are, however, other possibilities:

The above link points out that Roman soldiers "consumed a substantial amount of animal protein", "ate ox, sheep, goat, pig, deer, boar, and hare, in most places and in some areas, elk, wolf, fox, badger, beaver, bear, vole, ibex, and otter", and that "Broken beef bones suggest the extraction of marrow for soup. Alongside the animal bones, archaeologists found equipment for roasting and boiling the meat as well as for making cheese from the milk of domesticated animals. Fish and poultry were also popular, the latter especially for the sick."

So if this super-duper vegetarian diet was intentionally used to bulk up gladiators, why wouldn't Roman soldiers have eaten it as well? Doesn't make sense. What does make sense, however, is (again from the above link):

"Why were things apparently different for the gladiators? I personally suspect it has to do with the gladiators’ place in ancient Roman society. Gladiators were slaves, and among their ranks were countless prisoners of war and condemned criminals. It was clearly more economical to feed them a predominantly vegetarian diet."

We can only speculate, of course. But you have some explaining to do about Roman soldiers if your theory is to stand up to analysis. :-)

Melissa said...

Perhaps they were consuming barley in the form of beer, by far the most popular way to consume it.

jlundigard said...

We all have a friend like Don. He gets REALLY into something and talks about how much better he feels doing it. He has a lot of bullet-proof sounding "facts" and passionately showers them on anyone that will listen.

Then, a few months or years later, he is now REALLY into something else, often, something that is the complete opposite of his previous obsession. He talks about HOW MUCH BETTER he feels doing this new thing. Again, he has a lot of convincing "facts" to support his new position.

And around and round it goes.

I'm not saying this is necessarily so bad and certainly this is just the way some people are. I sincerely hope Don finds the good health for which he's desperately searching. But for the rest of us, it's hard not to take this stuff with a massive grain of salt. Don is the walking embodiment of confirmation bias if I've ever seen one and with each new post I feel like he is just looking so damn hard to find anything to support his current position.

noah said...

Sumo wrestlers = fat gladiators. Meals are often 75% carb.
Living long healthy lives. Not so much.

SoccerGuro said...

Don, what about anti-nutrients, phytic acid and lectins?

Asad Haider said...

Nice try, but as anyone can see from the following picture, modern Westerners eating high-fat diets turn out extremely skinny:

After all, the images we make of our culture are extremely accurate representations of our health status.

Malibu said...

hmm.... i dont agree but... i noticed Gary Taubes, carb nazi was still on your blog roll and i LOLed

Aaron said...

Just because someone is on your blog roll doesn't mean you have to agree with everything someone says. I read Taubes too, but I have a lot of disagreements with what he had to say. He also has insights that I agree with.

I may think that Richard Nikoley from Free the Animal eats way too much animal protein, but I love the style in which he blogs. That alone is enough for me to read him.

I commend Don for being flexible enough in his beliefs to change based either on personal experience or empirical evidence. I'm also glad he doesn't give in the incessant bashes he receives day in and day out on this blog. He doesn't have to do this blog and his goal is to help people -- give him a break.

If you look around the net these days, you see a lot more health bloggers who were once super low carb proponents embracing varying levels of higher carb intakes. (This includes Don, Kurt Harris, Matt Stone, Paul Jaminet, and many more) You really need to look at how foods affect you own body and adjust what you eat with that. I can almost guarantee that people who eat <50 carbs a day are at the fringe of diet science.

noah said...

Matt Stone is all over the place. Dr. Harris never specified macronutrient ratios to my knowledge. The Jaminets have encouraged certain starches as healthful from the start.

What is difficult to accept is how Don seems to think we're idiots for believing what steadfastly professed not long ago.

Eat some carbs, fine. But fat makes you fat and gives you heart disease? You gotta juggle the data to make that case. And Don is a good juggler. But...

Jaminet, Harris, Devany, Cordain. I'm betting on those minds.

Malena said...

Gladiators were slaves, or at least not free men of Rome, however, some of them managed to survive long enough to gain citizenship. They were sex symbols of their time. As there were no soaps in those days, the combatants applied oil on their skin and then scraped it off, together with the dirt and blood from the arena. This disgusting mixture was then sold as an afrodisiac. There were prestige in owning gladiators, lots of betting going on. Training grounds and gladiator schools did not differ much from gyms today regarding basic equipment. Maybe sometimes they had "slave foods", sometimes not. I think it is very hard to say as the gladiators' situation differed.

Perhaps it is more interesting to look at what the spartans ate as they were free men and perhaps the most fierce men (and women) the world has ever seen (at last on a larger scale). Their most famous food was a kind of mixture of pork and blood (I wonder if it was similar to the Swedish "blodpudding", that is, blood pudding, which actually tastes quite good, but the Spartan variety is said to have been disgusting). However, it seems like the bulk of their food was rye and wheat. They also ate lots of fruits and vegetables as well as game. Well, perhaps not lots of anything as they practised calorie restriction. And made sure their food did not taste too good. Sometimes I wonder if this is the key to our forefathers' lean build. With no salt, sugars, spices etc you simply stop eating at an earlier stage. To me it seems like the spartan diet was of a mixed calorie restriction type. With their long history of developing fierce warriors (several hundred years of dietary trial and error) I'm quite sure they knew what and how to eat to get a lean super-strong body.

Another comment not related to Spartans or gladiators that I have often been thinking about:
Regarding high fat diets, 99.99% of them are actually high milk (butter, cheese and cream) diets. I have yet to see someone following such a diet getting the bulk of their calories from lard (not including smoked super salted altered things like bacon, salami or pancetta). So, for the vast majority of people following a LCHF diet it is actually a LCHMilk diet, a diet which very very few peoples have ever followed throughout evolution.

jlundigard said...

@Malena "Regarding high fat diets, 99.99% of them are actually high milk"

You don't know much about high-fat diets, do you?

Malena said...


I didn't write about ancient HF diets. They were certainly not based on milk products. I wrote about HF diets of today. I haven't seen anyone today, or heard about anyone, who bases his/her LCHF diet on lard and whale oil. You could of course count macadamias and other nuts into the diet but LCHF:ers usually worry about all the omega 6 and refrain from eating nuts.

I'm sure there are someone out there doing the "real" thing. However, most people jumping on this trendy LCHF thing gorge on butter, cheese and cream. If people were told they could not eat that (or tasty nuts) I don't think it would have such a wide spread appeal.

Melodie said...


I think what you say might actually have some weight to it. I think what the average lay person would think of HF/LC diet is cream, cheese and butter (and bacon).

I know Peter (Hyperlipid) and Stan (Heretic) use real lard from pork bellies and beef tallow, as well as suet, marrow etc.

I myself have recently started this woe only a month ago. I don't drink milk or eat cheese or cream. (I use butter though). I'm not against dairy at all, but I am just staying away from it due to possibly sensitivities to it. (I'm in the middle of finding this out). I find it's important to get plenty seafood (Don't be afraid of fish heads), chicken w/ skin and bones (don't be afraid to eat the cartilage), fatty cuts of meat, use lard and tallow as mentioned above, olive oil is fine for dressings, some nuts (if you so desire), coconut oil and milk are good too. I don't see anything restricting about this woe. Veggies are fine, and same with some 'safe' starches as Jaminet says. (But this depends on individual health and/or preferences). If you react either metabolically or neurologically to too much glucose (again, amount varies) then don't bother with them.

So in the end, people have to chose what type of food they want to eat and know the consequences. It's not fair though, to say that modern HF diet = dairy products. That's certainly not what I'm doing...

Malena said...

Hi Melodie,

I used to eat like that. I was inspired by Price and also by the general "Atkins-discussions" going on in society. As I don't eat milk products (or soy or grains containing gluten) I ate lots of fish, made my own steaks (with bones), cooked broth on chicken, beef and fish/seafood, I used coconut oil and duck fat, bought duck liver and fish roe, etc etc. I never was as low in carbs as Atkins recommends, but compared to what I ate before I was very low in carbs. Result: Depression, lethargy, heavy legs and water retention, reddish eyes and under eye circles, PMS and weight gain. It sort of crept upon me, I didn't realize what was happening, I thought all of those things had other causes. And, of course, every now and then I had terrible binges on carbs.

Now, since a couple of months, I have changed totally and now minimize fat and proteins, especially proteins high in purine. I eat lots and lots of fruit (at least 1000g/day), brown rice, sweet potato, potato, lentils, lots of vegetables and complement will small amounts of protein such as a handful (tiny hand) of prawns, an egg yolk or a slice of turkey. I eat about 2500 kcal/day, I'm supposed to eat 2000, but I lose weight anyhow (I'm approx 110 pounds). My body feels light, I'm happy, my skin looks great, my constantly red swollen bad circulation fingers are now perfect, and finally, no PMS whatsoever. Just as before. When I was young and had fat fobia.

It took some time to change, in my mind and for my body, to accept carbs, I had indoctrinated myself for so long. Now I really look forward to the very lean and flexible body I had as a teenager (I'm now 38), I expect it to take another couple of months without me actually bothering or working for it. Apparently it happens automatically.

Malena said...

Maybe I should add,
I think I might have eaten about 40% of energy in carbs. Now about 70% and that suits me better. However, I believe we are all different and a certain diet might not suit another person. Although many people criticize metabolic typing I think the proponents have lots of good thoughts (if you read some books that is, not the fast versions on the internet). Its quite intuitive. Some people can produce lots of hydrochloric acid, others only small amounts, some persons have a small oblong stomach, others a large and round one. Asians seams to be less sensitive to carbs due to their larger pancreas. We have different levels of all kind of hormones in our bodies. I don't understand why everybody is supposed to thrive from the exact same diet. I now know what works for me but I accept that others thrive from a different macronutrient composition.

Dave said...

I also want to know if the researchers addressed the fact that many gladiators would not be natives of the city in which their bones were found. Perhaps people of the time in outlying regions, from were gladiators were selected, tended towards a low meat diet, more so than the presumably more wealthy city dwellers to which the bones were compared. If they were given more meat as gladiators, surely the bone composition wouldn't change over night. And I suspect the average career was not that long and bone piles would be more representative of those who had the least amount of time on the gladiator diet, whatever that was.

It seems quite common for scientists to make a simple observation then let their imaginations run wild explaining it. Then the media attaches some special merit to the theory just because its from a scientist who participated in the observation. Its like if I observe water freezes at 0 centigrade, and tell the media, "water freezes at 0, most likely because of a magical pixie effect". The next day you will see in the news, "Water Freezing Due to Pixies". I see it all the time.

Anyway, excellent article.

Jorge said...

Gladiators were slave. Obviously the bulk of gladiators (the dead ones) would eat the cheapest food available at the time. Cereals. As soldiers in moderns day do.
Best or elite gladiators was the ones represented in paintings and sculptures. And funny that elite gladiators was rewarded with MEAT, wine and women. So I don't see your correlation here.

Also elite gladiators would gain freedom and become Roman citizens. So studies of the bones linked to gladiators are from dead gladiators. Not a good example hehe! The top gladiators bones will be complicated to track, as they become common citizens from Rome.

Also physique in this case is more related to physical activity than diet and we are interested in diet for health, longevity and aging well. Remember isn't the same having a good body at your younger years, as having it at your older years (as Mark Sisson do with 58 years), so I don't see Chris Campbell as a good example of the forementioned, because I just did a google search and his recent pictures don´t look so well. I just wonder what happened to Chris physique?

Dave Nielsen said...

Wow. You are idiot. Did you read the article? They found confirmation of this diet through analysis of the bones. That's the evidence you were demanding. Gladiators weren't fat in the way of a couch potato, but along the lines of an Olympic weightlifter, or rugby prop. It's pretty much a given, too, that the author and his collaborator have a detailed knowledge of the subject, including the ancient sources (the starting point for determining the gladiator diet, confirmed by testing of the bones) but also art depicting gladiators.

Don said...


I think you are right, I am idiot.

I certainly did read the article. I know that they confirmed, these gladiators were essentially vegan. I never disputed that. Those images don't show me any fat gladiators, the abdominal musculature is clearly visible in some images. I don't think anything is a 'given.'

They didn't produce any evidence that the supposed calcium supplements were essential, they only found that they had strong bones; that doesn't prove that they took calcium supplements or, if they did, that the supplements were necessary. Nor did they produce evidence that gladiators were fat. Nor did they show any evidence that eating a diet high in barley makes people fat.

Grady the Good said...

A diet of barley and beans made gladiators fat?! Maybe if they ate a wagon load. I challenge el doctore to pile up 3000 calories of cooked barley and beans and see if he and maybe a friend or two can eat the pile in a day. No f-in' way! Plus I imagine the Romans wouldn't want to watch fat guys sumo wrestle in the Coliseum. All evidence is they treated gladiators like race horses, the good ones made money.

David Hestrin said...

Interesting article. I'd just like to say though that eating whatever amount of barley is really no big deal if barley digests as well as rice.

I've eaten 3000 calories of rice with ease in one sitting many times. It's not a big deal. I think we're built to eat way more than 2000 calories and historically ate as much as we could which was frequently very high calories.