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Monday, 29 March 2010 01:33

Religion helps science unravel supersized meals


Meal size has increased over the past century. Because of this, individuals have grown in size, too; to the point where obesity is a worldwide problem. Two U.S. researchers have studied this trend with the use of art, specifically paintings of 'The Last Supper.'



The researchers used 52 painting that are thought to be the best representations from the Last Supper (as stated within the 2000 book 'Last Supper') over the past 1,000 years (from AD 1000 to AD 2000).

The Last Supper is considered the meal that Jesus Christ took during a Passover evening with his twelve Apostles and disciples before he was put to death on the cross.

The book 'Last Supper" was published by New York City-based Phaidon Press in 2000. Some of the painters mentioned in the book, and used in this scientific research, include Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens.

Due to increases in the production of food, along with its availability, affordability, and other such relevant factors, the two researchers wanted to know if these factors over the past one thousand years have contributed to our obesity problems that now face the world.

The article 'The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium' (doi: 10.1038/ijo.2010.37) in the International Journal of Obesity appeared online on March 23, 2010.

Its authors are Dr. Brian Wansink (from the Applied Economics and Management Department, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.) and Dr. Craig S. Wansink (from the Religious Studies Department, Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, Virginia, U.S.A.). The two professors are brothers.

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So, the two brothers decided to compare ''¦the size of the food and plates that have been progressively depicted in the paintings of the Last Supper over the last millennium.' [Paper]

Their abstract states, 'Portion sizes of foods have been noticably increasing in recent years, but when did this trend begin? If art imitates life and if food portions have been generally increasing with time, we might expect this trend to be reflected in paintings that depict food.'

They analyzed the 'food-to-head ratio' in 52 paintings of the Last Supper with computer-aided technologies, which showed the relative sizes of the main dish (entrée), bread, and plates to the people's head sizes.

They also found that more food items were added to Last Supper paintings as the years went on. Bread and wine were told in the Bible as being featured at the Last Supper. However, many other foods have been added to paintings of the Last Supper.

The main dishes have included in some paintings such food and drink as fish, eel, lamb, pork, wine, bread, and fruit. Some paintings did not show a main dish.

They found that the sizes of the main dish, bread, and plates, have 'linearly increased over the past millennium.'

Check out the webpage 'The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium.'


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Specifically, the study showed that the size of the main meal of the Last Supper has grown 69%, the plate size has increased 66%, and bread size has increased by about 23% over the past one thousand years.

The Guardian article 'Last Supper gets supersized as art imitates life' quotes one of the authors of the study.

Brian Wansink stated, 'The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food'¦. We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history's most famous dinner."

Check out the webpage 'Increase in size of food in depictions of the Last Supper with time.'

The researchers state that this points to increasing portion size of food over the past 1,000 years and may document that our obesity epidemic in the world is a 1,000 year-plus old problem.

They discuss at the end of their paper: 'Analyzing the sizes or types of foods in art and in the media can provide a creative investigation of other engaging questions that are either longitudinal or cross-cultural. Other depictions of food in art and media may parallel their salience in day-to-day activities. If so, the depiction of how food is longitudinally represented and discussed in TV, films and social media could allow an opportunity for a deeper meta-analysis of key trends in our current culture.'

It might be interesting for you to go back and view your family photograph album to see if your food portions have increased in size over the years at family get-togethers at Christmas and Easter and other family festivities.

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