Gladiators! Who hasn’t been amazed and awed by these ancient heroic athletes? They were the star athletes of Ancient Rome, the Michael Jordan’s, Conor McGregor’s and the Lionel Messi’s of the Antique World (well, most of them were actually slaves, but they were considered an important investment and therefore treated very well).

But have you ever stopped to think about what they used to eat? And what the heck does this have to do with our current lifestyle diseases and climate change!?

To understand this, we have to go back in time a bit.

Gladiators were nicknamed “Hordearii”, which means “Barley-eaters” and the discovery of a mass-grave in Ephesus (modern-day Turkey) did a good job explaining where that nickname came from.

Most people might think that Gladiators were given a diet with loads of protein, like meat and dairy. A few years ago, however, a research team from Austria and Switzerland examined the bones of the buried Gladiators and found, apart from some quite horrible clues as to how the Gladiators died, that they were given mainly a plant-based diet. This contained a high amount of legumes (which are rich in carbohydrates and protein) and, surprisingly, very little meat. The researchers used a technique called “isotopic analysis”, which allowed them to track what kind of food the Gladiators ate based on certain isotopes contained in their bones.

Now, some might say that was probably just because they were slaves and didn’t get the “better” food and that it doesn’t necessarily mean that they were in good health. The study, however, proves otherwise. First of all, they compared the results with other citizens and found that the two diets did not significantly differ. Furthermore, the bone analysis showed that the density and strength of the bones were extremely high, which is a sign that their owners were indeed in good health. Analysis of the injuries also showed that they were given quite good medical care, which is in line with other historical accounts, where Gladiators are seen to be a potentially highly lucrative investment and, therefore, were usually well taken care of, despite officially being slaves.

So, why do we even talk about this? What does any of this have to do with a healthy diet in 2021? We wanted to bring attention to our current, meat-rich diet. While we aren’t advocating a vegetarian or vegan diet, we do think that we tend to eat too much meat in today’s society, which not only has a big impact on our health, but also on our planet.

We all know that red meat contains a good amount of saturated fats. If we have too much of those saturated fats, they can have a direct effect on our muscle cells, causing them to be unable to react to the signals of insulin to help remove an excess of blood sugar. But they also seem to have a direct toxic effect on the cells which are producing insulin, in the pancreas, which means they have a negative effect on both action and production of insulin, therefore contributing directly to the development of type 2 diabetes. So, if you diminish your intake of red meat, you could improve the production and efficiency of insulin in your body and protect yourself from developing diabetes!

And what about the planet? Did you know that about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from meat-production and related farming practices? We know that livestock directly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by producing methane, but we tend to forget that deforestation (to have more space for cattle and for cereal production, which is then used for animal feed), as well as meat transformation, transport, refrigeration and soil degradation through the use of pesticides have a huge environmental impact as well. If all of us would reduce their meat intake to, say, once a week, these emissions and damages could be significantly reduced, which would have a major impact on our current climate crisis. So, by just making a small change in your daily life, you too, can help protecting our environment!

As you can see, by learning about our ancestor’s diet, we can actually find simple solutions to help us not only improving our health, but also to chip in and do our part in saving the planet!