Nearly 15 years since the release of the first 300 movie starring Gerard Butler, the Spartans remain immortalized in pop culture for their military prowess and their muscled, zero percent body fat physique. Whether the Spartans looked like this in real life remains a matter of historical debate. Nevertheless, the Spartan warrior has inspired a slew of functional fitness gyms, obstacle course races, and the Spartan Diet. Sparta is synonymous with healthy and fit.
So what was the diet in the Greek state of Sparta, and what is the Spartan Diet today? We dive deep into the Spartan Diet so you can decide if you too, should be eating this way.
Who Were the Spartans?
Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The unique culture of this warrior society inspired legend, even among contemporaries in ancient Greece. The Spartan class of wealthy landowners were constitutionally bound to commit to military service until the age of 60. Sparta was the most dominant military in ancient Greece and won several decisive battles until Greece was conquered by the Romans.
From a young age, a Spartan citizens’ entire education was centered on building the physical fitness necessary for war. Men shared their meals communally in dining halls called Syssitia and food was highly controlled. Austerity was emphasized and food portions were constricted, beginning at a very early age.
Today, Sparta is the capital of the Greek state of Laconia and is well known for its citrus and olive farms. The Spartan Diet has taken on new meaning as the Mediterranean Diet on steroids.
The Spartan Diet History
Today’s Spartan Diet is inspired by ancient practices, but like the Paleolithic Diet and others in this vein it’s not an exact historical match, nor is it meant to be. The diet is geared towards body-building men, a nod to the fact it’s inspired by the physique of 300’s Hollywood actors as much as it has been informed by the historical health practices of Sparta.
So what did people in Ancient Sparta really eat? The historical Spartan diet is unique in that it emphasized moderation. Ancient Spartans underfed their children, avoided overeating as adults, and even watered down their wine. Excess was the enemy in a life designed to accustom one to hardship and foster endurance.
The historical diet of the self-sufficient society would have been limited to local Mediterranean resources and was far more basic than elsewhere in Greece, where food was revered. The Spartans seem to have eaten for function, rather than pleasure.
Meat included wild-caught game such as boar and rabbits. Fish from the Eurotas River were plentiful. Dairy included cream and cheeses made from sheep and goat’s milk. Fresh fruit, honey, figs and grapes were also widely available, as these were grown on the land of each citizen.
Spartans did eat bread, although most likely not at every meal and barley, not wheat, was the grain of choice. Barley was a staple in the form of gruel, or mixed on the fire with wine and goat’s cheese.
You may have heard of the infamous Spartan Soup. This black broth was made from pork, salt and vinegar. It’s dark color from the addition of pork blood. Whether or not this protein and vitamin rich soup was a daily staple is still up for historical debate but the soup is an example of a Spartan culture that saw food as little more than a means to an end.
Today’s Spartan Diet
The modern Spartan Diet is inspired by this ancient culture, but by no means is meant to mimic it exactly. As a nod to its Mediterranean origins, the diet relies heavily on olive oils as the primary source of fat, chooses ancient and fermented grains over modern ones, selects goat’s milk over cow, prefers wild-caught meats over domesticated ones, includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and limits alcoholic beverages to wine.
The diet has been adopted by those in the weightlifting and functional fitness communities, who have added several rules which emphasize the diet’s function in developing a chiseled physique. These rules include the following:
- Eat only organic foods
- Include 2-3 servings of vegetables at every meal
- Include lean proteins at every meal
- Eat every four hours
- Never eat until you are full – Always remain hungry between meals
The Spartan Diet and Hunger
This last point about remaining hungry is particular to the Spartan diet and the emphasis here is certainly meant to be both physical and mental. The Spartans valued self-discipline and organization and maintained their energy levels by avoiding satiation. The idea behind the Spartan diet, and the source of the desired chiseled look, is to eat just enough to fuel your workouts, and little more.
Personal trainer Mark Twight, who trained the 300 film’s actors has infamously said they were restricted to little more than 2,000 calories per day while training. Some who follow the Spartan Diet adhere to caloric consumption guidelines which suggest no more than 14 calories per pound of body weight per day. Thus, a 180 pound man would eat approximately 2500 calories daily. By most standards this is considered very restrictive for someone who is intensely working out.
There isn’t one standard macro layout for the Spartan diet, although it’s recommended that carbohydrate consumption takes place in the mornings, as preparation for a powerful workout. Macros for a typical Spartan diet may look as follows:
- 40% healthy fats
- 35% protein
- 25% complex carbohydrates
The Spartan Diet Shopping List
The main goal of the Spartan Diet is to eat to build muscle and reduce fat. This is an energy restricted diet that emphasizes protein for those seeking to retain or build muscle. To maintain compliance with this warrior way of eating, keep only the following foods on your shopping list:
Meats: Choose lean, grass fed meats or wild-caught game and wild-caught fish.
Vegetables: Select Mediterranean vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, eggplant, zucchini, chili peppers, and cabbage. Include dark leafy greens like kale and chard.
Fruits: Eat plenty of citrus fruits, figs, dates, and grapes.
Grains: Choose ancient, sprouted grains such as barley or quinoa, and select couscous over rice.
Legumes: Mediterranean legumes include chickpeas, peas, and lentils
Fats: Limit dairy to goat and sheep-based varieties. Eat plenty of olive oils, fish oils, nuts and avocados
The Spartan vs Paleo vs Warrior Diets
The Spartan Diet, Warrior Diet and Paleo Diet each emphasize choosing whole foods and exercising daily but there are a few key differences.
The Paleo Diet is a pseudo-historical diet much like the Spartan Diet, yet eliminates grains, legumes and dairy entirely, while encouraging dieters to eat as much as they’d like of everything else. The idea is that it’s impossible to overeat when most of what’s on your plate is meat and vegetables.
The Warrior Diet also excludes grains, but it’s main differentiator is intermittent fasting. Participants in the Warrior Diet restrict their eating for 20 hours each day and feast at night. The diet’s founder, Ori Hofmekler, claims this mimics the eating pattern of ancient warriors. For Spartan warriors, there was no feasting period.
Pros and Cons of the Spartan Diet
The Spartan Diet is similar to a Mediterranean Diet, which science proves is a very healthy way to live. The diet reduces chronic inflammation by eliminating processed foods and emphasizing healthy fats. Researchers say the diet protects against metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar that put one at risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Caloric restriction appears to delay aging and prevent age-related disease, including cancer and the formation of tumors. Early Spartans may have intuitively known this. Soldiers remained physically active in the military until the age of 60, after a lifetime of restricted eating.
Some worry the Spartan Diet’s emphasis on protein may lead to over consumption of red meat. Consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. These risks are greater for processed red meat, which is why the modern Spartan Diet recommends choosing grass fed and organic meats or opting for wild-caught game.
Extreme caloric restriction is inappropriate for most people and the Spartan Diet walks a fine line here. Participants are meant to eat barely enough to cover their daily energetic needs, without restricting calories. This is not an easy balance to achieve, especially for those who are active. Cutting calories too far can slow your resting metabolic rate, cause muscle loss, fatigue, and may lower immunity.
Is the Spartan Diet for Me?
The Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating. The Spartan Diet improves upon this healthy way of eating by excluding the intake of modern, processed grains and emphasizing healthy fats and proteins. Caloric restriction and the requirement to keep yourself hungry between meals may be too much for some, although a high protein intake does negate the risk of low calorie meals. If your goal is a lean body with a muscular physique, adherence to the Spartan Diet and a consistent exercise routine won’t be easy, but it will get you there.