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Final Meals on Death Row Reveal New Thinking on Obesity

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What would you choose to enjoy as your very last meal?

Most of us don't know when our final serving will be, but there are some who know precisely when their last meal is with near certainty - those on death row.

It is routine for newspaper reports of US executions to include a description of the final repast requested, indicating a widespread macabre interest in last meals.

Brian Wansink, Kevin Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, catalogued the actual last meals - the final food requests of 247 individuals executed in the United States from 2002-2006 - the theory being that this might reveal something about our true food desires.

Perhaps a unique way of getting at the answer to this question - what our real consumption wishes are - is to examine what people choose for their last meal. For the first time ever, their picks hold no implications for their future.

What would you eat if all concerns over your body image, cholesterol and mortality were removed completely?

The analysis, published in the academic journal Appetite, found the average last meal is calorically rich (2756 calories) and proportionally averages 2.5 times the daily recommended servings of protein and fat. The most frequent requests are also calorie dense: meat, fried food, desserts, and soft drinks dominate. Relatively low levels of fruits and vegetables were requested, while yogurt, tofu, and explicitly mentioned vegetarian meals, never appeared as a last meal choice.

This new study had been partly inspired by research into the most famous final dinner of all - Jesus Christ's Last Supper - which is the most painted repast in history. 52 of the best known depictions of the Last Supper over the last millennium were analysed by Brian Wansink and Craig Wansink from Cornell University and Virginia Wesleyan College in the US, who found that the relative sizes of the main dish, bread, and plates have relentlessly increased over the past millennium.

The study entitled 'The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium' points out that according to the New Testament, the dinner took place on a Passover evening in 'a large room upstairs, already furnished', but the accounts of the event make no mention of provisions, other than bread and wine. So pictorial depictions of the last supper probably tell us more about the psychology of the painter and the audience they were painting for, than the meal itself.

The study published in the International Journal of Obesity could almost be seen as evidence that food has become our new faith, because over the last 1000 years, relative to the size of the heads of Jesus and the disciples, the main course has increased by 69.2%, the size of bread by 23.1% and the size of plate by 65.6%. Size in a painting is often an indicator of import; religious figures appear to have been getting smaller, while their dinner has been getting larger.

The 'Death Row' study found ice cream and pie were the most popular desserts followed by cake. Chocolate was scattered across food types including in milk, malt, pudding, and ice cream as well as cake, brownies, fudge, and cookies. Chocolate has a reputation as a coping food for stressful situations.

It's a well known finding in psychology that those who have been recently reminded of their own impending mortality, eat more, and this effect is most pronounced for those with low-self-esteem.

Uninhibited consumption of not just food but material goods, luxury products, alcohol and even TV viewing appears to be a distraction, when in a mortal predicament. After September 2011 it is reported North Americans went on a shopping splurge, and ate more sweets.

Self-esteem can be threatened by confronting mortality, particularly if the individual fears dying without leaving a significant mark. Distraction is one way of counteracting mortality threat, accomplished by over-eating and over-consuming.

Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters from Arizona State University and Rotterdam School of Management wondered what happens if excessive consumption of food isn't allowed to perform its function of comfort and distraction from painful self-awareness? Perhaps the motivation to consume will decline?

In their study entitled 'The Sweet Escape: Effects of Mortality Salience on Consumption Quantities for High- and Low Self-Esteem Consumers', they used mirrors. This created a situation where food doesn't allow an escape from painful self-awareness, even while reminded of mortality. Self-awareness increases when individuals are reminded of themselves, for example, when facing a mirror. Subjects were seated in front of a mirror while writing an essay about death.

In the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research participants were exposed to a mirror while writing an essay about either death or pain. Some were allowed to escape facing themselves in a mirror, another group were not. When they weren't allowed to escape from facing a mirror, Low Self-Esteem consumers who wrote about death, purchased fewer food items than Low Self-Esteem consumers who wrote about pain.

The authors of the study end with a conclusion which appears particularly apposite in a week during which why poorer children are fatter, has been hotly debated. Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters argue that those with a lower self-esteem, might be more susceptible to overconsumption when stressed or when confronted with images of death during the news or crime shows.

Their results suggest that putting a mirror on the fridge door could curb overeating. If the mirror also remains visible during dinner, this could be an effective weight loss gambit.

Wansink, Kniffin and Shimizu contend their 'Death Row' study findings suggest caution when raising awareness of mortality in health campaigns against obesity. ''Scaring'' the population in order to encourage positive eating and activity patterns might be counterproductive.

Warning labels on tobacco products sometimes appear to increase tobacco consumption.

Some have commented that the tradition of 'death row' special requests for a final meal seems unjust - why reserve such a special privilege for convicts, when those who are homeless or poor are not given individually tailored meals by the state? Others respond that usally the meal is restricted to costing no more than $40, no alcohol is allowed, and it's the mark of a civilised human society; granting one last wish to those condemned to die.

But perhaps the true purpose of the feeding final requests is psychological, and primarily for the benefit of the executioners, to help them feel better about what is going to happen. The last meal offers a veneer of civilisation and humanity, to the otherwise barbaric practice of capital punishment.

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