Obesity Experts Say Last Supper Offers a Double Helping

Obesity may have historical roots dating back 1000 years, judging by the ever-increasing portion sizes in artists’ renderings of the Last Supper.

Historical paintings of the Last Supper suggest that meal portion sizes have increased in the past 1000 years, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cornell University analyzed 52 of the most famous depictions of the Last Supper and found that the appetites of the apostles have become increasingly larger. They discovered that the size of the main dish grew 69.2 percent and bread portions by 23.1 percent over the past millennium, while the plates grew by 65.6 percent.

The findings suggest that today’s obesity crisis may have been hundreds of years in the making, according to the researchers.

“I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion’, is a recent phenomenon,” Dr. Brian Wansink, director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, told the Los Angeles Times. “But this research indicates that it’s a general trend for at least the last millennium.”

Dr. Wansink and his brother Craig, a Presbyterian minister and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, examined dozens of depictions the Last Supper painted over the past millennium. Using computer design software, they scanned the meals and calculated the portion size relative to the head size of the average apostle. Their findings, published this month in the International Journal of Obesity, noted a big upward trend.

The Bible does not talk about the amount of food consumed at the Last Supper, and it was a “tertiary matter” for most artists, Professor Wansink noted. “The ampleness of the food is coming from the mind of the artist, showing what he thought was reasonable and appropriate in the time and place he was living.”

The continual increase in the serving sizes depicted in artists’ renderings of Christ’s final meal with his disciples indicates that as food became more available, abundant and affordable throughout much of the world, peoples’ desire for a bigger plate grew, as well. But, while the trend may speak to our propensity to indulge when food is plentiful, the super-sized Last Supper is not necessarily the root of today’s skyrocketing obesity rates, experts say.

“The obesity epidemic is a relatively modern phenomenon,” Jeff Brunstrom, Reader in Behavioural Nutrition at the University of Bristol, told Business & Financial Times, “and it’s really only in the past 40 to 50 years that you’ve seen big changes in body mass index.”

One Response

  1. Alison

    I would think that part of the increase in portion size is due to that we no longer eat what’s in season. So much food is imported from around the world. I live in Florida. Yet if I go to the grocery store to buy oranges most if not all are from other countries such as Africa, Italy and Chile. Also, we no longer wait for cattle to fatten up. With all the growth hormones that’s given to the food we eat. A calf is full size in months.


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