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Updated 10 February 2014

Build muscle like the warriors of old

For centuries, man not only subsisted, but thrived on a few staples: millet, rice, buckwheat, sorghum, rye, barley and maize. These humble grains were supplemented with vegetables, fruit, nuts as well as beer.

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To many blokes, there are few things in life as rewarding as an artfully cooked slice of dead cow. But it comes at a price, to the environment and to your health.

You’d never guess it looking at the contents of the average supermarket trolley, but for centuries, man not only subsisted, but thrived on a few staples: millet, rice, buckwheat, sorghum, rye, barley and maize. Depending on where he lived, these humble but versatile grains were supplemented with vegetables, fruit, nuts and of course, draught beer.

Until recently, meat was a rarity
Meat was a rarity, but in medieval England, the common folk ate well on herring and eel. In their book The Year 1000, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger write that archaeologists digging through the old latrine pits (Isn’t it good to know there are worse jobs than yours?) found that “The frequency of apple pips, plum and cherry stones suggests that when it came to fruit, medieval men and women did not let a morsel go to waste”.

How things have changed. In modern agriculture those time-honoured foods on which man filled his belly and met his dietary needs are instead fed to livestock, which is in turn fed to man.

In the March 13 edition of New Scientist, author Colin Tudge writes: “The world’s output of meat increased fivefold in the second half of the 20th century. We now have 22 billion farm animals, including 15 billion chickens and 1,3 billion cattle.”

World food industry to increase 50%
Tudge adds that the world food industry is preparing for a 50 percent increase in capacity in the next two decades. With present trends, the number of livestock globally will have soared to the point that the feed they consume would feed an extra 4 billion humans had it not been used for food production.

Cows don’t only produce meat: they’re efficient generators of methane, producing a quarter of the world’s annual emissions, with direct and detrimental impacts of global warming. It could be said that if you were trapped in a confined space with a cow for any length of time you might lose consciousness.

Another major environmental impact posed by so many cattle is on water: Tudge says, “It takes 500 litres to produce a kilogram of potatoes, 900 for a kilo of wheat, nearly 2000 for rice or soya, 3500 for a kilo of chicken and a staggering 100 000 litres for a kilo of beef.”

Too much of a good thing?
This is apart from the health risks of eating too much meat. In the Western world, our problem is generally eating too much protein, rather than too little. Too much animal protein can cause your body to excrete calcium through the urine, as well as increasing your risk of kidney disease.

So how do you put power in your muscles?
But what about blokes who’re following an eating plan, pounding the weight machines at gym and blazing away with aerobic exercise?

Certainly: people who’ve done so include some tough ones, with some Olympic medals in their cabinets at home: Bill Pearl, four-time Mr Universe; sprinter Carl Lewis, named Olympian of the Century; Stan Price, who set a world record for bench-press; Al Oerter, who won four Olympic gold medals throwing discus; Olympic medalist and hurdles sprinter Edwin Moses, and WBC world middleweight champion Keith Holmes.

So, what can you do? For a start, have an objective view of your diet and lifestyle: there’s little use in going vegetarian if you smoke 30 cigarettes or knock back a bottle of wine each day.

But assuming you lead a reasonably healthy life, there’s little reason you shouldn’t move to vegetarian or even vegan foods and still sport a beach body.

At least one nutritionist, Dr Jack Norris, has examined whether vegans can pile on muscle and look ripped without scarfing large sections of cow each week. He found that the there was little difference in the protein needs of vegetarian and non-vegetarian body-builders and that a varied diet of grains and beans met the vegetarians’ needs.

One study, known as the Tarnopolsky study, monitored lacto-ovo vegetarians who had trained intensively for three years. It found that two of the six weightlifters studied needed to supplement eat slightly more protein-rich foods such as legumes, soya foods and wheat gluten.

Would you have enough energy to push weights? Definitely. Our ancestors were the complete antithesis of today’s Atkins dieters, going into battle with what The Year 1000 describes as “swords, spears and battle-axes … ferocious and well-crafted weapons” that took solid muscle and stamina to swing. The power came mostly from veggies.

 
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