The “Arnold Era” Diet

Before the Bullsh*t



Bodybuilding experienced a meteoric rise in popularity during the 1970s due to the balanceArnold Schwarzenegger presented between the natural and supernatural. He did not look alien to the public; he was the avatar of every hero in comics and pulp novels. Arnold’s physique during his prime was impressive due to his size, muscularity and symmetry. Unquestionably, he benefited from his (overstated) height and attractive features, as well as his charisma. Relatively less stunning was the degree of definition— especially when compared to modern-day bodybuilding. Heavy training, genetics, anabolic steroids and protein-rich diets allowed these men to attain tremendous muscular size— however, the vascularity and striations common in amateur shows today is missing from this early time. If you want to know what these men ate, go back to the 1960s. There was little nutritional awareness; people didn’t talk about protein and carbohydrates— it was “meat and potatoes.” Forget about all the supplements in your cabinet, they did not exist. At best, there were predigested proteins from gelatin and soy, along with desiccated liver tablets; athletes were chewing dextrose tablets, which are basically SweeTARTS.1

Most bodybuilders were marginally employed (very few were sponsored), typically coming from blue-collar backgrounds. Their background and resources were closer to what the average reader has— far from what today’s pros enjoy. This caused bodybuilders to be dependent upon cheap, regular food— and lots of it. The situation was worsened if they traveled for competition, especially to a foreign country. Mike Katz, who appeared in the movie “Pumping Iron” as one of Arnold’s competitors, recalled eating kabobs purchased from a bazaar booth with fellow competitors prior to one competition; there was no other option.2

Tight Clothing and Fit Bods

Obesity was heavily stigmatized in that era, so no self-respecting bodybuilder would have allowed himself to “bulk”-up to walrus-like proportions. The typical diet will seem ignorant in some ways compared to what even young bodybuilders understand today— seemingly deficient in vital nutrients, and excessive in calories, fat and sodium. Its relatively high calorie content was offset by more physical recreation and occupational activity compared to the media-based, sedentary trends of today.

There was a focus on meat, be it beef (including dairy), chicken (including eggs) or fish (nope, no caviar). Though nobody talked much about individual amino acids, everyone knew you needed “meat” or protein for your muscles to grow. The importance of leucine was unrecognized, and it certainly wasn’t available in half-kilo tubs. Along with the protein, of course, came fat. While the men living on the coast could obtain fish regularly, it was not a staple for those in the Midwest or Mountain regions, or parts of Europe. Hence, much of the fat was saturated; trans fats were just appearing in the margarines used as butter substitutes. Perhaps it was the inclusion of flesh and non-hydrogenated fat that allowed these men to gain the size they did (on conservative anabolic regimens), whereas so many people now avoid fat overzealously.

Sugary drinks were not regularly consumed, and sodas came in 12-ounce glass bottles. Given that the sugar came from cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, the impact of sugar during the 1960s may not have been as detrimental.3,4 The only artificial sweetener available was saccharin, so low-calorie “diet foods” were available. Bodybuilders generally did not rely on low-calorie sweets, realizing the need for habitual restraint and timed carbohydrates to maximize the training response. The limited exposure to chemicals from plastics and fertilizers may also have contributed to their success. Pans were made of iron, and coated with butter or lard; Teflon and other non-stick surfaces were only just being developed. There are undoubtedly many environmental factors that will never be realized, though they are discussed in the obesity literature as “endocrine disruptors” (e.g., BPA, phthalates, alkylphenols).5

Low-carb, Not Ketogenic

The general diet of these men can be classified as “low carb,” though not ketogenic.6-8 Typically, carbohydrate intake was limited to less than 100 grams per day; essentially keeping with the low-glycemic load design. This is based more on recall than any planned intake, as food weighing wasn’t common, and nutrient labeling was not mandated at that time. Instead, the men avoided pastries, bread and sweets. Carbohydrates came primarily from fruit, rice and potatoes, as well as honey. It is impressive what these men learned through trial and error, sharing their findings throughout the collective community. It is similar to how traditional medicine (e.g., Ayurvedic, TCM) practices learned the value of herbs.

Breakfast First, Then Cardio

Generally, there was no first of the morning cardio or workout. Breakfast came first, after a full night’s sleep. For Arnold, that was six hours of sleep; others slept longer hours. Arnold credits much of his success to being more productive every day, and having two extra hours allowed him to do more.9 Remember, he is a not a one-dimensional person. He worked on language skills, education, investing, acting and many other talents that most people never even explore. It is interesting that breakfast was such a universally consumed meal, as research has shown time and again that eating a breakfast improves weight management.10,11

The breakfast varied a bit, depending upon the background of the person. In those days, European and other international competitors were as prevalent as U.S. champions. They all gravitated to the United States eventually, just as budding actors view Hollywood as the Mecca of opportunity. Off-season, U.S. bodybuilders would eat simple, low-carbohydrate meals. Eggs, sausage and lean cuts of ham would adorn the breakfast plate, garnished with some fruit or a small bowl of oats or Cream of Wheat. Those who did not work during the day would head to the gym mid-morning for a workout. Most of these men trained with at least one partner, so after the workout it was common to head to a local diner or restaurant for the fullest meal of the day.12,13 This is when the carbs were consumed, just as has been found to be the best timing by science. Again, breads were typically avoided; instead, rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes were piled on the plate.

No Snacking Allowed

Snacking was not a component of the bodybuilding diet, nor did people “graze” as some do today. Instead, meals were consumed— whole-food meals. A late-afternoon lunch or barbecue with friends was related frequently, again with a preponderance of meats. Some of the comments make one wonder just how many chickens there are in the world; certainly fewer, thanks to these men. The evenings generally did not involve hedonistic debauchery, but they were relaxed. Television viewing was not a big part of the downtime— there were only three channels in those days and they stopped broadcasting shortly after the late news (around midnight). Instead, time with girlfriends and spouses, working or studying was the “everyday” routine.

Supper was generally not a large meal, and not consumed immediately prior to going to sleep. Not only did this provide for better sleep, but it also allowed the body to experience a normal circadian rhythm.17 It was interesting to note that many of the bodybuilders mentioned the importance of vegetables— for fiber, nutrition and (unknowingly) low-glycemic index carbohydrates. Occasionally, a glass of milk before bed was drank; this would provide a slow-release protein for the overnight fast.

Thank You, Arnold

It was during the 1970s that bodybuilders began to learn more about nutrition. In part, it is thanks to Arnold— as he set the standard so high that natural ability would no longer account for success. His focus, dedication and efforts caused the other bodybuilders who desired to unseat him to forage further into the science of nutrition (as well as pharmacology). Success in managing nutrition was evident during the mid-1970s forward. The physiques became more defined, chiseled and symmetric. Judging allowed for smaller men with stunning physiques to defeat larger competitors.

For the young people of today, Arnold’s impact on bodybuilding is underappreciated. He is thought of by some youths as being ancient history, or an actor who started in bodybuilding. It is important to realize that if he had not achieved a level of unprecedented greatness in his time, the motivation and standards for other competitors would not have been as extreme. He and his contemporaries learned to manage food through observation, trial and error, and communication with their peers. Along with relatively primitive protein powders, they demonstrated that achieving an enviable physique is possible through basic nutrition and discipline. Of course, the muscular strength and mass were augmented by the use of anabolic steroids. However, these gains were possible by sitting down at the table rather than shaking and stirring whey shakes, along with handfuls of capsules. Their diets were low-glycemic load diets, high in protein, and rich in fruits and vegetables. This is a practical approach for natural and enhanced bodybuilders, as well as those wishing to manage their weight for health purposes.


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