Is Jesus making you overeat?

Well, in fairness, Jesus’ twelve Apostles should also share in the blame.

An incredibly quirky and yet fascinating study was published in the International Journal of Obesity which investigated the size of the food and plates that have been depicted in paintings of Jesus’ Last Supper over the last 1000 years.

The trend of gradually increasing portion sizes is well documented; just go to your local McDonalds and order a large drink and fries and drive yourself directly to the nearby hospital for a bypass.

Thus, Wansink & Wansink decided to directly compare the portion sizes in various historical renderings of what is considered to be the most famous meal ever.

As you’d expect, over the past 1000 years, Jesus and his apostles have progressively grown bigger appetites.


“From its depiction circa 1000 AD/CE to the present, the ratio of this main course entree has generally increased by 69.2%. Similarly, the ratio of the size of bread has increased by 23.1% and that of the size of plate by 65.6%.”

So there you have it, if you have a more recent rendering of The Last Supper hanging in your dining room, the depictions of plentiful food had by Jesus and his friends, may just push you to eat that second helping of dry bread and fish.

Just remember- “What would Jesus do?”


Originally posted on Obesity Panacea in March 2010.

Wansink, B., & Wansink, C. (2010). The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium International Journal of Obesity DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2010.37

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9 Responses to Is Jesus making you overeat?

  1. Lyn says:

    This is sort of related– I was watching the Ipcress file last night (Michael Caine, 1965). An early scene takes place in a London ‘supermarket’ – rather new-fangled for the time. People are pushing around shopping trolleys that aren’t much bigger than hand-baskets today! I’m sure that the enormous size of American shopping carts encourages people to put more into them.

    • Peggy says:

      I suspect the availability of large shopping carts is also a reflection (consequence?) of the movement of more women into the workforce.

      From what my mom has told me, she used to go to the supermarket several times a week when my brother and I were young (early 70s) and she was a full-time homemaker. That wouldn’t have been possible if she also worked outside the house.

      If you are purchasing enough food to feed a family of four for a week or longer, those basket-sized carts aren’t likely to be big enough. Also, the full-sized carts usually have space for a small child to ride, so mothers don’t have to push a stroller -and- a shopping cart at the same time.

      So it’s a trade-off. Sure larger shopping cards allow you – maybe even “encourage” you – to purchase more food at one time. But the flip side of that is that purchasing more food in a single shopping trip requires fewer trips to the market per week, which frees up the shopper’s time to do other things.

      There’s probably a whole sociology thesis-worth of discussion that could be made about the implications of large grocery carts. For example there is a built-in assumption that shoppers have the means to transport larger quantities of purchased goods, which likely means more shoppers have access to a car.

  2. Excellent observation, Lyn. I’m sure there is certainly something to that. When you consider the overall temporal trend of increased portion sizes of meals, sizes of soft drink bottles, shopping carts, family-sized packages, etc. it becomes less surprising that many have trouble not eating more than is necessary.

  3. Kevin says:

    I would also agree that it’s an interesting observation and I wouldn’t doubt that it does have an effect on overall purchases. There was a study done not long ago regarding the use of shopping carts and amounts of products purchased, and there was a strong correlation between customers having shopping carts and purchasing more.

    Many people think that greeters handing out shopping carts in stores are there to create a warmer and more friendly shopping experience, but this is not the case. They know that a consumer with a cart is more likely to purchase more with a cart than without, even if they only came for a specific item. If there aren’t greeters, there are always a plethora of free shopping carts available as soon as the consumer enters store as to make it convenient to grab one.

    I had a hard time tracking down the study, but a search online should produce it with the right keywords.

  4. Chris says:

    This study has been widely criticized by historians, medieval culinary historians and art historians, because the authors are apparently not aware of the conventions of medieval painting, which dictate such things as the size, contents and placement of plates and food on the table.

    While some medieval and Renaissance paintings are clearly more realistic than others, a medieval painting is not a photograph: its purpose was not to record an exact image of an existing scene but to convey a message. This is especially true for a scene of deep religious significance such as this one. A painting like this is unlikely to provide an accurate guide to portion sizes.

    It would have been helpful if the authors had consulted some actual paintings experts before coming to such sweeping conclusions. Alternatively, if they were interested in researching medieval/Renaissance portion sizes, there are also a number of actual surviving dishes from the same eras in the paintings: it would have been far more meaningful to have measured those if a basis for comparison with modern dishes and portions is needed. There are also a number of surviving cookbooks: while they don’t always indicate how many people a dish will feed, there are extensive lists of provisions for feasts and ordinary households that do indicate how many people are expected to eat a given quantity of food.

    Of course, the increase in “normal” portion size over the last few decades is very well documented already. But unfortunately, this tends to make this “study” — which is far from rigorous in historical terms — appear to simply be a publicity stunt.

    • Liisa says:

      I’m an art historian and I wanted to chime in exactly with the same comment.
      I’d generally trust the details, in fact. The only exception being figures and objects explicitly mentioned in the New Testament – otherwise, the painters indeed used realistic details even in Medieval art. However, it is always damn good thing to research on the details, very often fabrics or tableware are rather realistic (I’m not sure about actual meals, I haven’t really encountered food iconography as a theme but from now on, I’ll keep looking) even before the actual realistic styles, be it Renaissance or Late Gothic influenced by the Low Countries’ style. The oscillation between realistic and idealized images is however a recurring theme in art history and often it’s hard to decide – I remember a heated argument about some sculpted decoration, the professor decided that it’s sorta leafy and unidentified otherwise so it’s acanthus by default, I claimed that it might well be Lactuca scariola because the leaves looked exactly like that one. Professor won because professors are always right but admittedly, it could be argued that the sculptor wanted to make acanthus, didn’t know how it looked, saw an inaccurate rendering of it somewhere and used a common weed as a real life model. Who knows for sure.
      I’ll try to find the article somewhere, I’m not particularly willing to pay for something I want for frivolous purposes of debunking it, or possibly make fun of it, but I’m really curious what do the authors consider as typical and how they explain the choice of those 52 artworks analyzed.

  5. With no picture of the last supper in our home I’m afraid I’ve got nobody to blame for my paunch other than myself… and now it must be time for lunch…

  6. Coturnix says:

    I have not read the paper, but from my reading of the post, the paper is not intending to measure real meal sizes, but cultural expectations of what a Good Meal means. This, of course, would also affect artistic norms at any given time. In other words, artists do not depict real meal-sizes, but societal expectations of meal-sizes, which is exactly what this study is trying to measure. Thus looking at art is an excellent method for getting at societal norms and their change over time.

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