In our ongoing concern about overeating, we tend to consider supersizing a recent trend.
But is our appetite for ever-increasing portion sizes really so recent?
In a scientific analysis of artists' depictions of the most famous meal in history, Sioux City natives Drs. Brian and Craig Wansink found evidence that plate and portion sizes have been increasing not just since the launch of urban fast food but throughout the last 1,000 years.
The East High School alumni's findings are published in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity. The researchers are the sons of Sioux Cityans John and Naomi Wansink.
Brian and Craig Wansink analyzed the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper. They indexed the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple's head. They found that portion size, plate size and bread size increased dramatically over the last thousand years. How much did they increase?
The Seder meal's main course expanded by 69 percent; the plate size by 66 percent; the bread size by 23 percent. The researchers did not include wine in their study because most of the paintings do not depict wine.
"Portion distortion," as Brian Wansink describes the growing "normal" size of helpings of food and drink, appears to be nothing new. Advancements in food production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability seem to have fueled appetites for increasingly bigger portions over a long period of time. The sharpest increase is seen in depictions of the Last Supper from 1500 to 2000, according to the study.
Obvious and subtle influences on overeating are the focus of Brian Wansink's high-profile eating behavior research. Dubbed the "Sherlock Holmes of food," the Cornell University professor and Food Lab director has published eye-opening findings about hundreds of "hidden persuaders" that encourage "mindless eating" every day. His book, "Mindless Eating" (Bantam; 2006) and his ongoing research make him a prominent source for journalists reporting on overeating issues.
Craig Wansink, whose scholarship focuses on New Testament studies, is the author of "Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul's Imprisonments." He's professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, a Morningside College alumni and serves on the Morningside College Board of Directors.
The Last Supper food analysis gave Craig and Brian an opportunity to pool their considerable scholarly credentials toward greater insight into eating behavior.
"As the most famously depicted dinner of all time, the Last Supper is ideally suited for review," says Craig Wansink. "The method we used created a natural crossroads between our two divergent fields and a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with my brother."
The Wansinks' study points out that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention food other than bread and wine. The Paschal lamb would have been served for this particular Seder. "Discernable main dishes" depicted by artists through the centuries include fish or eel, lamb and even pork.
The Wansinks' study may stimulate more research into art and the media as sources for tracking portion size patterns and how much we really eat. All of us can share in the spirit of their work by taking an unscientific look at classic TV programs, such as "Leave It to Beaver."
When Wally, Eddy and Lumpy gather at the soda shop they sip pop from impossibly small bottles. Remember when six ounces was considered a full serving of pop? These days, consumers chug 20- or even 32-ounce containers of pop and consider it one serving.
Perhaps researchers can dig into cookbooks to reveal evidence of our expanding definition of "normal" portion sizes. Here's one sample: A paperback titled "New Recipes for Good Eating" was published in 1949 by Procter and Gamble. A recipe for "French Toast" makes six servings; it calls for just six slices of bread. Imagine diners of today satisfied with one slice of French toast for brunch?