Researchers at Cornell University studied the last meals of 247 death row inmates to find out precisely what they ordered and how people handle nutrition when longterm health stops being a worry. They found that typical last meals are remarkably high in calories, high in protein and fat, and high in brandname foods. The average last meal has ("conservatively") 2,756 calories which is way more than the recommended amount of calories for adult during an entire day. Over 80 percent of the prisoners requested meat and two-thirds asked for something fried. Hardly anyone chose fruits or vegetables (or, oddly, pasta and pizza) and, somewhat surprisingly, around 20 percent didn't eat anything. One inmate requested a single pitted olive.
In other words, people choose comfort foods for their last meal. It's taken as a given that when people are upset or in stressful situations they both overeat and gravitate to dense, calorie-rich foods, like desserts and fried foods. The doomed prisoners also ordered way more than could eat, because there's no reason not to. Although, Texas banned the "all you can eat" last meal in 2011 after one prisoners took it too far. People presumably choose the branded foods, because they know exactly what they're getting and they won't be disappointed.
That all seems pretty obvious, right? So why bother with the study all? Well, the last meal is a fascinating subject that has long captured imaginations. Artist Julia Ziegler-Haynes famously recreated the last meals of several death row prisoners for a photo series — including the one above, eaten by Peter J. Miniel — that became a book called Today's Special. (You can buy it here.) The paper even references previous studies of last meals of people who didn't know they were dying -- like fossilized Neanderthals and passengers on the Titanic. However, the researchers were looking at the effect of "mortality salience" on food choices. That is: "the degree to which people variably value and discount the future."
If you know you have nothing to live for, then how do you behave? Among the researchers' conclusions was the suggestion that maybe doctors should avoid threatening patients with death and illness to get them to change their diet, because they will "counterintuitively engage in unhealthy overconsumption." If you think you're going to die prematurely (or are simply depressed about your weight), you might as well eat what makes you happy, right?