Last Supper study shows portion size history

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

A new study by an obesity expert and a religious studies professor has found evidence that meal sizes have increased by almost 70 per cent in the last 1000 years – by analysing paintings of the Last Supper.

The final meal shared between Jesus and his 12 apostles, as recounted in the New Testament, has a favourite subject for artists through the ages, with the tables spread with victuals the 13 were supposed to have eaten.

Brothers Brian and Craig Wansink, the former a professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and the latter professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, decided to combine their expertise in a piece of research that studied the portion sizes represented by artists.

They wanted to find out when the trend towards larger portions began. “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 wrote in a study accepted for publication in the International Journal of Obesity.

Wansink and Wansink looked at 52 of the best-known Last Supper paintings dating back over 1000 years. They indexed the size of the food portions by comparing them to the sizes of the average apostle’s head.

They found a startling linear increase in the quantities of food shown over the least millennium. Overall, main courses increased in size by 69 per cent, plate size by 66 per cent, and bread size by 23 per cent.

Too much?

Attention to portion size is flagged as an important strategy in the fight against obesity, but the artists’ ideas of what constitutes a hearty meal could indicate that sizes have crept up over time – rather than leapt up in recent decades.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,’ is a recent phenomenon,"​ said Brian Wansink. "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

It is not clear at what point in history the meals served would have been deemed optimal by today’s nutritional standards, or how the portion depictions link to historical events that may have affected food supply in the artists’ locality.


International Journal of Obesity, online ahead of print
Doi: 10.1038/ijo.2010.37
The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium
Authors: B Wansink, C Wansink

Related topics: Science

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