The Athlete’s Diet

I started my PhD project on the athlete’s diet in 2017 at Radboud University Nijmegen. The title of this project is:

Fitter, Stronger, Faster: The Athlete’s Diet and the Pursuit of Healthy Lifestyles in the Netherlands and the UK (1945-2016)

See also my Radboud University profile. And the Radboud University page for the Sport History Research Group.

Here follows a description of the project:


In our present age, both scientific and popular interest in the ‘athlete’s diet’ is at an all-time high. But its ambiguous ideals have not gone unnoticed. Is the sport nutrition hype creating healthier consumers, or is it fostering new eating disorders? Less noted, however, is that this broad interest in the food choices of athletes has had a surprisingly long history. After 1945, Western governmental institutions and scientists increasingly struggled to strengthen and hold their grip on consumers. At the same time, athletes’ biographies, cookbooks and popular sport media provided an influential guidance in the public’s pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. The ‘athlete’s diet’, then, symbolizes a quest for the perfectly constructed body, while offering the promise of total nutritional control.

This project focuses on the cultural history of the athlete’s diet and analyzes its influence on modern ideas and practices regarding lifestyle and health. It comprises a cultural historical analysis of sport magazines and related media to gage its mediation and reception. Thereby, the study will help to understand the complex interplay between various agents – athletes, commercial food producers, governmental agencies, mediators, and audiences – in the shaping of ambiguous cultural ideals. In this way, it will explain how athletes were increasingly able to utilize their celebrity status to encourage lifestyle changes among the population.

Research questions:

The main question this project addresses is twofold: how and when did representations of athletes’ diets change? And to what extent did these shifts both shape and reflect popular ideas and practices regarding lifestyle and health? Four sub questions focus on the role of different agents:

a) Which shifts in content, visual representation and intended audiences of the athlete’s diet – presumably increasingly varying in addressing gender, class, and race – occurred in sport-related magazines, athletes’ biographies, and sport nutrition books?

b) When did sport-related food hypes occur, how did corporations capitalize on them in advertisements, and how were these mediated by sport and consumer-oriented journalists?

c) Which changing ideas about body and health can be found in sources outside of sport-related media – lifestyle magazines and general diet books – relating to changing (representations of) athletes’ diets, and did – and do – consumers’ food choices correlate with transformations in athletes’ diets?

d) When and how did state institutions draw on the athlete’s diet in trying to alter popular food choices?

Key words:

Sport celebrities – food practices – popular mediation – identification processes – aspirational lifestyles

The Athlete's Diet
Advertisement from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (1928) for Ovaltine, a milky energy drink

Click here for information on my previous project at Radboud University Nijmegen about the the various identities in the province of Guelders and their relation to football.