by Marion Nestle
Mar 27 2010

Increasing meal size in the Last Supper?

As readers of this blog know by now, I very much admire and enjoy the work of Brian Wansink, the Cornell professor who studies environmental cues (like portion size) that trigger overeating.

In his latest publication, he teamed up with his brother, a professor of religion at Virginia Wesleyan, to analyze the sizes of the plates, foods, and meals illustrated in classic paintings of the Last Supper created from the year 1000 to 2000.

According to their analysis, portion sizes began expanding in about 1400.

Alas, their data points end in the 1700s.

Were they really not able to find modern depictions?

Art historians: get to work!

Professor Wansink talks about this study in the Atlantic Food Channel.  And for a more recent look at the increase in portion sizes, see the paper I wrote with Lisa Young in the American Journal of Public Health.

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  • Dan

    Down here in Buenos Aires, there’s a local steakhouse called La Dorita, which for years has had its wall graced by a large painting of the Last Supper done as if it was an asado, or outdoor barbecue – the helpings of steaks, french fries, etc. are enormous! Of course, that’s a change of theme and a leap of nearly 300 years, but at least gives you one datapoint!

  • I saw this study and found it to be quite futile. Can you really compare current portion sizes to an ancient painting? They should stick to their original, more money-worthy research.

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  • Jesse Locker

    I haven’t read the study, but as an art historian its foundational premise strikes me as deeply flawed. Namely, the assumption that paintings of the Last Supper are an accurate portrayal of reality–much less portion size–misunderstands workings of renaissance and baroque artists. In Leonardo’s version, for example, he manipulates virtually everything for artistic effect. By the same logic we could surmise that the laws of perspective, gravity, proportion, human physiognomy, meteorology, and optics–reality, in short–have changed some 25% since the 15th century!

  • Anthro

    Paintings are not photographs and their content can hardly be taken literally. A better source for such research might be diaries or other records of food purchase, preparation and consumption. Housewives or servants of the time were not usually literate, but there must be some records of travel inns or descriptions of meals. Of course, portions would have varied greatly by class and status. The poor probably just ate whatever could be managed, a cycle of feast and famine for the most part. I don’t think portion size as we think of it became meaningful until the industrial age.

  • It’s pretty amateurish to simply equate portion sizes to overweight/obesity and even weight gains. It’s a lot more complicated than that simple assumption and it may not be very germane except in the extreme. Assuming moderation in any practice, it explains nothing really. Those few extreme examples come nowhere close to accounting for 67% of us.

  • I believe the point of this study is not to determine whether or not portion sizes have increased over the past two thousand years. The idea is that our CULTURAL VALUES have changed over time. The question that I think the researchers are trying to pose is why artists feel the need to depict more and more food at the Last Supper. It’s not about what Jesus ate. It’s about what contemporary culture WANTS him to have eaten.

  • Here’s a more recent one that doesn’t seem to fit the trend, Salvador Dali’s last supper:

    Those are some pretty small pieces of bread to be shared by 13 dudes.

  • Oh my goodness! No wonder people are so fat these days. I have nothing about people being fat, don’t get me wrong, but this is a real shocker! It doesn’t help that on top of increasing portion sizes, there are also hidden things in the food that makes us fatter without our knowing it. I read about hidden fat in this article and I kind of felt betrayed. Hehe. 🙂