US experts who anaylsed over 50 paintings of the Last Supper have shown that art imitates life in that the portion sizes of the food placed before Jesus Christ and his apostles have grown in the depictions painted over the last 1,000 years.

You can read about the research by Dr Brian Wansink of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York and his brother, Dr Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, Virginia, in the 23 March advanced online issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

Brian Wansink, who is the John S Dyson Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told the press that:

“We took the 52 most famous paintings of the Last Supper (from the book Last Supper, 2000) and analyzed the size of the entrees, bread and plates, relative to the average size of the average head in the painting.”

They chose this series of paintings because it probably portrays the most commonly painted meal. The event is Jesus Christ’s Last Supper, described in the New Testament of the Bible as taking place during a Passover evening, when according to Saint Paul, Jesus pronounced as he broke the bread: “do this in remembrance of me”.

For the study, they used CAD-CAM (a computer-aided design technology) to scan and rotate the paintings so they could measure the food, plates and heads and compare them relative to each other regardless of their orientation in the painting.

They assumed that the average width of the bread is twice the width of the average disciple’s head.

The results showed that the relative sizes of the various dishes have increased in a linear fashion over the past millenium, as follows:

  • The main dish (entree) has increased by 69 per cent,
  • The bread has increased by 23 per cent, and
  • The size of the plates has increased by 66 per cent.

Wansink, who wrote a book titled Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, said the findings suggest that the idea of serving bigger portions on bigger plates, which is thought to push people to overeat, has taken place gradually over the last 1,000 years.

“The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food,” said Wansink.

“We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner,” he added.

His brother Craig, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, said there is no religious reason why the meals have got bigger. Either meals really did grow or people have become more interested in food, he said according to a report by the BBC.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American portion sizes have been increasing in tandem with waistlines over the last 20 years.

Restaurant meals have got larger, perhaps to make people feel they are getting more value for money, bags of snack foods and soft drinks in vending machines and packages in grocery stores have also increased in size.

The agency points out that portion size is not a problem if people manage what they eat so they don’t eat more calories a day than they need. But research shows that when we are confronted with larger portions we tend to eat more in a meal, and we tend not to reduce what we eat subsequent to consuming large portions.

Here are some tips from the CDC to help control portion size and avoid overeating:

  • Restaurants often serve portions that are larger than we need, so when eating out, either split the entree with a friend, or ask the waiter to put some of it in a “doggie” bag to take home.
  • At home serve meals straight onto the plate and keep excess out of reach to avoid those second and third helpings that are easy to have when food is served in serving dishes.
  • When eating or snacking in front of the TV put a reasonable amount in a bowl and put the package out of easy reach (it’s easier to overeat when the food is in front of you and you are paying attention to something else).
  • Shops generally sell foods in portions larger than we need, so when you get home split the contents of packets into several smaller containers.
  • Don’t eat straight from the packet: serve a reasonable portion in a bowl or container.
  • When buying in bulk, store the excess out of sight, in a place that is not easy to get to, for instance in a basement or garage.
  • If you are hungry between meals eat a piece of fruit or salad, and when it is time for the meal try not to overeat.

“The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium.”
B Wansink and C S Wansink
International Journal of Obesity, advance online publication 23 March 2010.

Sources: Cornell University, BBC News, CDC Research to Practice Series, No. 2 (May 2006).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD