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A Super-Sized 'Last Supper'

Researchers examining depictions of the most iconic meal of all time find portion sizes dramatically increased over the last millennium.
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Perhaps this is a sign that finger-pointing over obesity has reached biblical proportions.

Brian Wansink of Cornell University illuminated burgeoning human eating patterns over the last millennia in one simple, wryly crafted bit of research. To do so, he looked at the most iconic meal of all time: the Last Supper.

Wansink and his fellow researcher, his brother Craig Wansink, hypothesized that "if art imitates life and if food portions have been generally increasing with time, we might expect [this to] be reflected in paintings that depict food."

Certainly, this was the case for the Last Supper, the meal Jesus Christ shared with his disciples shortly before he was crucified.

In the Wansinks' soon-to-be published study, 52 depictions of the painting were selected from the Phaidon Press publication Last Supper, which documented more 100 renditions of the event from the years 1000 to 2000 A.D. (We'll stick with A.D. instead of C.E. in this instance for obvious reasons.) Using a CAD-CAM computer program, researchers scanned, rotated and calculated the exact sizes of each main dish, portion of bread and plates that served the food.

"It's basically a food Rorschach test for the artist," Brian Wansink told "He or she [the painter] was undoubtedly focusing on the interactions of the people at the table and not the food. "

They found that the depicted size of the main course entrée (which varied between fish, lamb or pork in the paintings) increased 69 percent since 1000 A.D. The loaves of bread ballooned 23 percent over a thousand years, and the plate sizes became 65 percent larger. The researchers found a "sharper increase" of overall portion size from 1500 to 2000 A.D.

In the study, the authors wrote that "although lamb would have normally been served, the three [biblical] accounts of the [original] event make no mention of food other than bread and wine." The only items missing from the most recent renditions of the painting appear to be a Big Mac and fries.

Brian Wansink, who wrote the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, postulated that "depictions of food in art and media may parallel their salience in day-to-day activities." Meaning that the portion sizes that we see commonly displayed in food commercials, movies or TV may sway, if unconsciously, what we serve at home.

"Many people focus on portion sizes increasing in the past 20 years," Wansink wrote. "It seems to be a part of a much larger, longer trend."

But not even Dan Brown could have guessed that the greatest secret coded within the Last Supper was to ask for seconds.

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