Every time I venture into the produce departments of large supermarkets, I am stunned by what I see on the shelves. Arranged to perfection on trays and lit by soft lighting are foods I scarcely recognize anymore: grapes the size of a squash ball, naval oranges as big as a child’s head, and pineapples larger than a football. How did we ever get to this, I ask myself, pumping our crops so full of chemicals until they reach Brobdingnagian dimensions? Gulliver would have felt right at home.
All this came to mind this morning, as I read a very clever new historical study that Brian Wansink, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, and his theologian brother Craig Wansink, just published in the International Journal of Obesity. The two researchers examined 52 images of the Last Supper painted between A.D. 1000 and 1900, and measured the size of the portrayed portions. (They did the later by scanning the food items and plates with computer-aided design technology, then calculating the relative food to human head ratio.)
What they found was a strong trend over time towards supersizing. The entrees grew by a whopping 69%, while the plates themselves expanded by 66%. Even bread loaves swelled by 25%. Could religious practices account for this trend? Craig Wansink, the theologian on the team, says no. “There is no religious reason why the meal got bigger,” Wansink told a BBC reporter. “It may be that meals really did grow, or that people just became more interested in food.”
Brian Wansink’s earlier research strongly suggests that the monster-sized portions we see today in restaurants, fast food joints, and on our own dining room tables have a lot to do with the current obesity epidemic. And there are some simple things we can do to cut the calories. Just switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch plate, for example, will result in a 22% decrease in the amount of food we eat at dinner.
Above: The Last Supper by Jacopo da Ponte, ca 1546
Below: The Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez n.d.