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Death Row Nutrition: Curious Observations of Last Meals

Death Row Nutrition: Curious Observations of Last Meals

Death row last-meals are consistent with food choices that people make when under stress

People generally want foods that are familiar, consistent, and comforting for their last meal

In order to prevent unwanted weight gain or loss, be aware of how stress impacts eating behavior

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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

Have you ever thought about what you would eat if you only had one meal left? Asking this question in media interviews and TV shows has become common – in fact, it’s almost become a whimsical conversation topic among popular chefs like Anthony Bourdain and stars of apocalyptic dark comedies like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Even on Yelp, it’s considered a sign of great praise to identify a restaurant as the place where raters indicate they would like to purchase their Last Meal on Earth.

Against the backdrop of these hypothetical cases, how do people actually react when faced with this decision? In a recent study, Dr. Brian Wansink, Dr. Kevin Kniffin, and Dr. Mitsuru Shimizu examined food choices among people facing execution as a window for understanding more about one of the most extreme circumstances when a person faces near-certain death in the immediate future. Surprisingly, even though there tends to be popular interest in the specific last meals that any individual person might request prior to execution, previous researchers have not systematically studied the meals for the purpose of assessing patterns.

A total of 247 last meals of people on death row between 2002 and 2006 were analyzed in this study. Among many other contrasts with hypothetical last meals that people might imagine for themselves, it is important to note that people on death row are typically limited to a budget of $40 worth of food and no alcohol.

The researchers found that the food choices were consistent with previous findings when people were experiencing feelings of stress and distress. Overall, the last meals tend to be calorically dense, averaging 2,756 calories. Specifically, the most commonly requested foods were also calorically dense being meat (83.9%), fried chicken (67.9%), desserts (66.3%), and soft drinks (60%). Requests for specific brands were also common, occurring in 39.9% of meals. Finally, 20% of the sample opted to eat nothing.

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 counterintuitively engage in unhealthy overconsumption, the findings also suggest further study relating to the artificial use of mortality salience in campaigns against obesity.