Have Jesus' Disciples Fattened Up Over the Last 1,000 Years?


Grist points us to a compelling study published by the International Journal of Obesity, which reveals that the portions on the plates of Jesus' disciples in depictions of The Last Supper have "increased dramatically" over the last 1,000 years. Looking at 52 different paintings produced over the time period, it was discovered that entres grew in size by 70%, the bread by 30%, and that even the plates grew 66%. So what are the implications of having better-fed disciples over the years? A fatter Judas? Peter with adult onset diabetes? No, not exactly--but it turns out that the trend reveals some important culinary clues to the eating trends of the last millennium. You see, conventional wisdom posits that the skyrocketing size of food portions is an unwelcome trend that took root over the last couple decades. And to be sure, portion sizes have grown significantly since the 1970s in the United States--but it turns out there's a far longer timeline involved.

If the portion sizes depicted in paintings of the Last Supper are any indicator--and culinary scientists believe that they are--then in fact, portion sizes have been increasing gradually over the last thousand years, not just in the past 40. "I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon. But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium," Brian Wansink, director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab says, according to Grist..

But the LA Times notes that regardless of the new findings,

There is scant evidence that the body mass index of people in developed societies soared into unhealthy ranges for most of the 1,000 years studied, Young said. But there is little doubt, she added, that that changed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s -- coincidentally, when portion sizes began a dramatic run-up.
So the bottom line is that revelations about the size of Peter and Paul's plate sizes shouldn't undermine current criticisms of meal portions--they are indeed by nearly all counts unnecessarily large. But I do think it is useful to know that the trend toward bigger portions has been rising historically for hundreds of years. As the study's authors state, larger food portions are a "natural consequence of dramatic socio-historic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food," not just the result of cheap, fast food, and a rise in takeout popularity.

In other words, lambasting fast food and a wasteful takeout culture isn't enough--we need to think about our meal size in direct relation to human health requirements at a fundamental level if we hope to put a lasting dent in this upward consumptive trend.

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