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Exploring the impact that restrictive eating has on the body and mind: The Minnesota starvation experiment

By Madalyn McCormack

[Trigger Warning:This blog contains numbers (e.g. calories) which may be triggering for eating disorder sufferers]

9Source: Refinery 29 

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment:

During World War II, 36 men were chosen from a pool of volunteers to participate in a study of human starvation conducted by Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota. The study, which later became known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, aimed to provide insight into human starvation in order to guide the famine relief efforts after the end of the war.

The study began with a 12 week control period, where the men were fed 3,200 calories a day to keep them well fed and comfortable (rations varied slightly depending on individual metabolic factors). At the end of the control phase, their calories were cut by approximately 50% and a six month semi-starvation period began. During the semi-starvation period participants were restricted to a low calorie diet of approximately 1570 calories a day. At the end of the semi-starvation phase the men were then fed approximately 2000-3000 calories a day. The study concluded with the men being able to eat an unlimited number of calories a day.

So, what happened to these men? During the semi starvation phase they began to demonstrate side effects similar to those experienced by individuals struggling with an eating disorder. Physically, they reported feeling emaciated and weak, they lacked concentration and appeared gaunt. They also had a decreased heart rate, decreased body temperature and lowered sex drive. Psychologically, the men became preoccupied with food. They sought pleasure from watching others eat, they began obsessively collecting recipes, hoarded food and were often distracted by daydreams of food. One man was even eliminated from the experiment after he stopped at 17 soda shops on his way home to sneak unauthorised food. They also developed food rituals including diluting potatoes with water to feel fuller, licking their plates, holding bites of food in their mouth for a long time without swallowing and making interesting combinations of food on their plates. In addition, the men reported feeling depressed, irritable, angry and apathetic. They became indifferent to socialising, were no longer able to laugh and often preferred to spend time alone.

During the refeeding phase (when the men were able to consume an unlimited number of calories) many of the men had lost control over their hunger and satiety and ate more or less continuously. Further, the men reported that this loss of control led to feelings of self-disgust, self-deprecation and self-criticism. At the end of the experiment, the men regained their original weight plus about 10%. However, their weight gradually declined back to their original weight during the follow up period.

Five important lessons from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment:

  1. A significant amount of the symptoms of Anorexia, Bulimia and other restrictive eating disorders are actually a result of starvation. More importantly, we know that the direct side effects of starvation will fade with adequate nutrition and psychological support.
  2. Starvation, whether it is voluntary or involuntary, is incredibly difficult for the sufferer with a myriad of physical and psychological effects.
  3. Any human being, when they are restricting their eating or are deprived of adequate nourishment, will become obsessed with food, lose energy, will no longer have the motivation to do the things they once loved and may at times appear to be a shell of their former selves.
  4. Binging might be the result of restrictive eating and not due to a lack of self-control or willpower.
  5. This experiment also teaches us about dieting. The physical and psychological symptoms described above were the result of semi starvation which consisted of consuming 1,570 calories a day. Interestingly, this calorie amount is similar to that prescribed by many dieting programs.

References:

Baker, D., Keramidas, N. (2013). The psychology of hunger. Monitor on Psychology, 44(9), 66-66.

Kalm, L. M., & Semba, R. D. (2005). They starved so that others could be fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment. Journal of Nutrition, 135, 1347-1352.

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