What Would Jesus Eat? Supersizing the Last Supper

Add one more to the long list of reasons for childhood obesity—from car-centered suburbs to supersizing—that Claudia Kalb described so well in her recent story: depictions of the Last Supper.

Over the last 1,000 years, the portions and plates depicted in 52 paintings of the last meal Jesus ate with his Apostles have grown bigger and bigger, finds a study to be published in the April issue of The International Journal of Obesity. From dishes to bread to entrees, it’s all been supersized, according to findings by marketing professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University and his brother, Craig Wansink, an ordained minister and professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.

“We took the 52 most famous paintings of the Last Supper and analyzed the size of the entrees, bread, and plates, relative to the average size of the average head in the painting,” said Brian. Over the last 1,000 years, the entrees have grown 69 percent; plate size, 66 percent; bread size, 23 percent. As art imitates life, he suggests, changes to larger portions and plate sizes “have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”

Brian has shown in study after study that we are prone to “mindless eating,” as he details on his Web site and in his 2006 book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. The idea is that we eat more not because we’re hungry but because of environmental cues: we chow down more when we eat from large plates than from small ones; drink more from short glasses than from tall, thin ones; eat more calories when offered a larger variety of food (think Thanksgiving, or a buffet); eat more when background music is very fast (making you eat fast) or very slow (you keep eating).

The Wansinks suggest that more recent portrayals of the Last Supper reflect the supersizing of society. Interesting that it’s global rather than just in America, the land of the Big Gulp and gallon-size containers of movie popcorn, and that it’s centuries old. But maybe it’s worth entertaining another hypothesis: that the images we see—and the Last Supper is one of the more ubiquitous art images in the Western world—subliminally affect our notion of what’s a portion size. As that size has mushroomed in paintings of the Last Supper, a new answer to “What would Jesus eat?” emerges: more than he used to.

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