History tells us that some of the strongest men in the world ate a predominately vegetarian or vegan diet. And many of today’s athletes have decided to follow suit, seeing great results and health benefits for themselves.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are on a Netflix hiatus, you’ve most likely heard of or watched The Game Changers, a ground-breaking documentary revealing to mainstream audiences how a plant-based diet is proving to be extremely beneficial to the performance of professional athletes. Produced by the likes of Lewis Hamilton, James Cameron, and Jackie Chan, this documentary – which was released on Netflix last year – was star-studded, fact-packed, and caused quite the stir among the plant-based and meat-eating communities alike.
In it, the documentary mentions the findings of a study run by two pathologists from the Medical University of Vienna, who found the correlation between gladiators and a predominately vegetarian or vegan diet. Professors Karl Grossschmidt and Fabian Kanz spent over five years cataloguing and forensically analysing over 5,000 bones from the remains of at least 68 gladiators found at a gravesite in Ephesus (modern-day Turkey). They found that many of the gladiators had healed wounds, which to Grossschmidt and Kanz suggested that they were prized individuals getting good and expensive medical treatment.
Gladiator games offered their sponsors extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion, providing their clients and potential voters exciting entertainment. Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners, for politicians on the rise, and those who had reached the top and wished to stay there.
These warriors are often considered to have been the strongest men in historical record. It was important that the average gladiator had stronger, larger bones, which would allow them to survive strikes that would break the bones of less fortified people. So although gladiators were usually slaves, they were valuable to their owners, and ensuring they were fed the right foods to survive in combat was of the utmost importance.
The professors subjected bits of gladiator bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc. The results showed the bones had low zinc and high strontium, which led to the conclusion that they consumed a mostly vegetarian or vegan diet high in carbohydrates like beans and barley.
Plants contain higher levels of strontium than animal tissues, and people who consume more plants and less meat will build up higher levels of strontium in their bones. According to Kanz and Grossschmidt, levels of strontium in the gladiators’ bones were two times higher than the bones of contemporary Ephesians.
The theory that gladiators consumed a predominately vegetarian or vegan diet is not actually a new one. The ancient historian and author Plinius, also known as Pliny the Elder, in his ancient accounts of Rome refers to gladiators as “hordearii” which literally translates as ‘barley men’.
Other experts have claimed that Caesar’s Roman soldiers preferred to do their fighting on grains than meat. Famed historian Will Durant, in his book, The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, writes:
“Food in camp was simple: bread or porridge, some vegetables, sour wine, rarely flesh; the Roman army conquered the world on a vegetarian diet; Caesar’s troops complained when corn ran out and they had to eat meat.”
As was portrayed in The Game Changers documentary, there are a growing number of top athletes today who are ditching the long-held belief of an animal protein-based diet to sustain endurance and support recovery. Strength athlete, ‘vegucator’ and coach – co-founder of the Plant Fit Summit – Luke Tan, has been living a plant-based lifestyle for nearly a decade. Previously a heavy meat-eater, this Singapore local now eats a whole foods plant-based diet high in carbohydrates and proteins, much like the way the gladiators were believed to have been fed. And he certainly looks the part.
“I came into this lifestyle for two reasons,” Luke says. “I was a kilo-a-day meat-eating bodybuilder-turned-vegan overnight because of animal welfare. I was also on a low-carb diet before, literally counting my carbs to try and maintain a low body composition. Beyond that I had digestive and joint issues as well.”
Today Luke consumes a whole foods plant-based diet, which is made up of 60-65 percent carbohydrates, 20-25 percent protein and 10-15 percent fat. He trains every day for periods of up to 2.5 hours and has competed in many strength and endurance-based events (CrossFit, Spartan, Bodybuilding). He is now training for a SealFit Crucible Event, which is an integrated functional fitness and mental toughness programme that is based on Navy SEAL training philosophies.
This bodybuilder claims his plant-based diet is the reason he is now able to stay lean all year round and recover quickly from training. “I don’t have the joint issues that I used to have when I was a meat-eater, so it’s really improved my game,” he explains. “I suffer significantly less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and recover very quickly.” Luke also attributes the fact that he has been in optimal health over the years because of his lifestyle change.
Luke explains that the primary fuel for our muscles is glycogen. When we consume carbohydrates, it is broken down into glucose and gets stored as glycogen. Many people believe that carbohydrates are the enemy and should be avoided at all costs. There are ‘good carbs’ (from whole grains, legumes, fruits, tubers, etc.) versus ‘bad carbs’ (processed or refined grains, refined sugar). Those who suffer from ”carbophobia’ might end up lumping good and bad carbs together and eliminate them totally, which could be detrimental to long-term health and athletic performance.
“By eating carbs from whole and unrefined plant-based sources, your glycogen stores will always be full. This will help increase training volume while improving recovery. Basically you can train longer and harder!” Luke says.
Supplements, and the all-important B-12
Besides eating predominately vegetarian foods, other theories suggest that gladiators washed down their food with a supplement drink of vinegar mixed with plant ash, flooding the system with calcium to support bone growth and recovery after injuries.
Like most nutrition-conscious athletes today, Luke supplements his diet to ensure he is getting all the right nutrients. His main concern is vitamin B12, which is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. Until recently, it was commonly believed that B12 could only be found in animal products, however the truth is that it is produced by bacteria found in soil. In order for the bacteria to make B12, the soil needs to contain the mineral cobalt.
Early humans received plenty of B12 from consuming small quantities of good-quality, cobalt-rich soil found on vegetables, and from drinking water from rivers containing B12 and B12-producing bacteria. Today, however, intensive farming has drained the soil of nutrients, which isn’t just a problem for humans – it’s also a problem for farmed animals.
Cattle naturally consume B12 from dirt on grass roots, and chickens from pecking around for worms and insects. But most factory-farmed animals are kept indoors and are never exposed to soil, rendering them deficient without supplementation. In fact, around 95 percent of all B12 supplements manufactured are actually given to farmed animals.
The good news, however, is that a recent discovery by the researchers at Parabel, a US-based producer of plant protein ingredients, has revealed that water lentils (aka duckweed) contains high levels of B12. This could be a game-changer for the people like Luke, who would always prefer to get his nutrition from whole food sources.
Beyond B12, when Luke isn’t able to train outside in the sunlight, he supplements with vitamin D, and is also a fan of taking branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), which consist of the essential amino acids valine, isoleucine, and leucine. Leucine is the key amino acid in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of repairing and building new muscle, or as Luke would call it, “gains”. He further shares that leucine is also omnipresent in legumes.
“Beyond that I consume a plant-based protein powder to further help with recovery and repair. The protein blend consists of peas, brown rice and faba bean,” Luke shares. When competing in CrossFit events where he may have four or five events in one day, Luke supplements with adaptogens (American Ginseng, Cordyceps, Reshi Mushroom) to speed up recovery while mitigating inflammation.
To help people make the switch to a plant-based lifestyle and become a modern-day ‘warrior’, Luke has started The Green Warrior Challenge, a four-week online course covering nutrition, training, recovery, and long-term health and success. “I want everybody to live and experience what I’ve experienced and make an informed choice when they make the decision to go plant-based,” Luke says.