Portion Distortion Has Been Happening for at Least 1,000 Years

Food portions have definitely gotten bigger since your grandmother’s day, but it’s not just larger plates, modern cookbooks, and super-sizing that are to blame. “Portion distortion” has been happening for at least a thousand years. How did researchers find out? By studying famous paintings of The Last Supper – Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. Why The Last Supper? Because it’s the most famous meal in history – and artists have been painting it for centuries.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, conducted the study with his brother Craig, a Presbyterian minister and professor of religious studies. They compared 52 paintings of The Last Supper, painted between 1000 and 2000 AD – including the most famous one, completed by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1498. The computer program compared the size of loaves of bread, main dishes and plates in relation to the size of the heads of the men in the paintings. The result: The size of the plates and food increased 68% since the year 1000. The biggest increase in size came after 1500.

So, why did food portions change so drastically? Over the years, dramatic increases in food production made food safer, more available and more affordable – so people started eating more as a result. As food became more available – and people began eating more, it made sense for the artists to give Jesus and his disciples more to eat, too. For example, the apostles in paintings from the Middle Ages had very little to eat – as would be expected of men living simple lives. However, Da Vinci’s Renaissance painting fed the party more lavishly. Almost a century later, Jacobo Tintoretto piled the food on the apostles' plates even higher.

Want to conduct your own study of the arts to prove how much more we’re eating today? Watch an episode of Leave It to Beaver from the 1950s, and compare the impossibly small soda bottles they drank compared to the 32-ounce containers of soda sold today.

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