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Death Row Nutrition: Curious Conclusions of Last Meals

Wansink, Brian, Kevin Kniffin, and Mitsuru Shimizu (2012). Death Row Nutrition: Curious Conclusions of Last Meals. Appetite 59(3): 837-843. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2012.08.017

The purpose of this study was to gain insight into how people relate to food in highly stressful environments with no value of the future, by studying the ultimate case mortality salience: death row. Interestingly, 21% of these individuals declined a last meal. Of those who did request an analyzable full meal (124), information was obtained through public record. Available meals were coded and analyzed for nutritional content.

Our analysis revealed, on average, meal requests was high protein, high fat and calorie dense: 2,756 calories with 2.5 times the daily-recommended amount of protein and fat. The foods most frequently requested included meats, fried food, desserts and soft drinks. 39.9% of people requested a branded food or drink. Fruits and vegetables were not often on these individuals’ wish list. This pattern of meals shows a preference for foods associated with resource-poor environments with food insecurity. The role of temporal discounting may be seen as people choose these ‘comfort foods.’ The high proportion of branded food requests could also be driven by a desire for comforting familiarity.

From these findings, it is clear that when selecting a last meal, people tend to want foods that are familiar, consistent, and comforting. In some people, a fight-or-flight response seems to be activated causing them not to eat food in stressful situations. Knowing how one reacts and manages stress in terms of eating behavior could prevent against unwanted weight gain or loss. Given that some people who are warned about the ill effects of obesity might counter-intuitively engage in unhealthy overconsumption, the findings also suggest further study relating to the artificial use of mortality salience in campaigns against obesity.