A review of Arnold‘s diet shows that the fundamentals of eating really haven’t changed much in the last 30 years, at least for those at the top.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable. I’d rather stay hungry.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Times have changed since Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled the bodybuilding world throughout the ’70s. Once upon a time, before we’d been privy to countless “revolutionary” diets and “Hasta la vista” was still associated with trips to Acapulco, Arnold was just a big—no, huge—guy in a fringe sport who occasionally showed up as a guest on late-night television. But an analysis of his diet, considered ‘crazy’ back in the day, shows that perhaps he and his Speedo-wearing buddies were a few decades ahead of their time.
As an athlete growing up, I was starved for good information on sports nutrition. Back then, we all had nutrition as a subject at school. And while it wasn’t exactly accurate by today’s standards (do we really need 3 servings from the red meat food group?), at least we learned that food has calories made of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and that how much of each you eat affects your performance. But misunderstandings were rife. Perhaps fueled by inaccurate science or industry lobbyists, it was hard to find the straight dope on what an athlete was supposed to eat. High carb, low carb, TV dinners, tuna casserole, or Space Food Sticks—even my coaches didn’t know what we should eat. One thing seemed certain, however: Arnold and his cronies had it all wrong. They were nothing but muscle-bound charlatans, and soon enough their muscle would all “turn to fat” and they’d be dead of heart attacks well before middle age.
A quick cut to 2004, and Arnold—well into middle age—didn’t look worse for the wear while speaking to the Republican National Convention. Slimmed down substantially since his Terminator days, he looked fit, trim, and vivacious. And he’s not an anomaly. I recently saw Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno at the gym. He hasn’t gotten fat, nor has he trimmed down. Somewhere past 50, Louie still looks a lot like, well, the Incredible Hulk. Certainly, someone was wrong about their diet. So just what did those guys eat? Let’s take a quick glance back in time.
Protein. When I was a kid, my cousin, Chris, a bodybuilder, taught me about eating a lot of protein. “Arnold says you need a gram per each pound of body weight,” he said on our way to an all-you-can-eat fish buffet. In fact, Arnold recommended .5 g/lb. per day for “average” people and 1 g/lb. for athletes. Pretty consistent to what you’ll hear today.
Whole foods. I lived in LA, so occasionally I’d get firsthand reports on Arnold. My friend Ray once got to have dinner with him. Hearing that he ate “a huge amount of beef” was no surprise, having been filled in by my cousin, but I did learn something new when Ray told me that he said that “bread was poison.” Arnold wasn’t anti-carb, except when cutting up for a competition. But he was pro whole foods, acknowledging that nature knew how to make foods more digestible than scientists did. What they knew was how to make foods change color. This simple, or rather archaic, rule to live by was an anathema to a society in the grips of the prepared food revolution. Arnold was having none of it.
Many meals a day. “You see something, you eat it,” said another of my bodybuilding friends to someone who’d asked how he got that big. “You eat all the time.” Arnold knew three squares a day wasn’t going to cut it, no matter what the FDA was championing. And it wasn’t just the fact that he needed 5,000 calories per day to maintain his size. They knew about the importance of insulin spikes, digestion times, and other variables that could be helped by eating more frequently. Smaller meals allowed you to train harder. The harder you could train, the better the results, provided you had enough fuel in the tank.
Protein shakes. Even my athletic friends thought I was weird for the concoctions I’d throw into a blender in high school. But the boys down at Gold’s Gym said the best way to get enough nutrients was to buy bulk protein and make shakes, so I immediately jumped on the bandwagon. These were often clumpy and none too tasty, a far cry from oh, say, Beachbody’s Whey Protein Powder shakes. We, however, did what Arnold did and would have happily quaffed down motor oil if someone had told us it would make us strong.
Fats. Arnold didn’t shy away from fat, recommending good fats, like nuts, but also bad fats that you get from dairy and red meat, things he ate in abundance. But certainly these recommendations had to factor in his size and the amount of exercise he did. If you do this, his level of fat intake no longer seemed outrageous. More and more we are realizing the importance of fatty acids. And not just omega-3s. Even saturated fats, which can be deadly if consumed in excess, are essential for maximal testosterone production and not something you want to cut out entirely.
The bottom line is that this little group of fringe athletes probably understood the relationship between proper eating and human performance better than anyone in the world, and that the answers could be relatively simple.
“Exercising without eating the proper foods is like plowing a field and not putting any seed into the ground,” said Arnold. “Nothing would grow out of it.”
This little bit of validation from those oiled-up freaks posing on the beach is more a lesson in the obvious. Arnold and the boys lived in a cutting-edge world of trial and error. Their eating habits reflected this approach. They made in retrospect what look like sound scientific decisions, even though they conflicted with the conventions of the day. Their approach is an example of the fact that the most effective way to accomplish something is not to wait around for others. Sometimes the answer is to just get out there and do it.