Abundance at the Last Supper

According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, artist portrayals of the Last Supper show increasingly larger meals as we moved through the ages. Researchers analyzed 52 paintings produced over 1,000 years. USA Today reports: “Over that 1,000 year period, the main course size increased by 69%, the plate size by 66% and the loaves of bread by 23%. The biggest size increases came after 1500.”

The study authors concluded that portions increased because food became more plentiful and less expensive. The increase of food supply through the ages is a positive trend. After all for most of history–including during the 1,000 years in this study–humans suffered from with a constant struggle to produce and secure enough food to simply subsist. The biggest gains in wealth and food supply emerged rather recently with the development of modern market economies, reducing malnourishment dramatically–one of mankind’s greatest achievements. CEI and other lovers of liberty will celebrate that achievement, and many others, this year on Human Achievement Hour.

Yet the study is being used to lament today’s “obesity crisis,” which is really silly. It’s not as if obesity was the problem in 1585! It is more likely that most people were lucky to meet their basic food needs. In any case, it is not clear why the authors stopped in 1585. Later images like the one by Philippe de Champaigne and the modern version by Salvador Dali show very sparse meals. And surely, there are more than 52 paintings of the Last Supper during the time studied and after.
New York University nutrition researcher Lisa R. Young explained it well in the Los Angeles Times, which paraphrases her noting: “[s]he also pointed to the three decades that ended the millennium as a ‘tipping point’ for humankind. 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.”

While obesity is indeed a problem for many people, it is, ultimately, is very recent issue and a better problem than living near starvation or even at mere subsistence.