Minnesota Starvation Study

Bear with me while I get all researchy on ya’ll. I like to read empirical research to get my facts right.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting experimental study that was published in 1950 by Ancel Keys at colleagues in Minnesota (actually I did a quite intensive empirical search on PubMed), more commonly known as the starvation study. Despite the fact that this study would not be able to be carried out today due to ethical concerns, it has been paramount in exemplifying the effects of restrictive eating and other eating disroders.

Ancel et al., (1950) recruited young, healthy & psychologically normal males who volunteered to participate as an alternative to military service. The 36 selected to participate out of the 100 who applied had the highest levels of physical and psychological health determined by an array of psychometric and physical tests.

The first three months of the study consisted of the volunteers to resume normal eating and exercising patterns and consumed around 3200 calories. This was subsequently followed by a 6 month ‘starvation’ period where caloric intake was halved, followed by another 3 month phase of rehabilitation consisting of 2300 – 3000 calories. During each phase emotional, social, physical and physiological measures were closely examined.

The changes in these once healthy men during starvation and rehabilitation phases were outstanding. First and foremost, one of the most profound changes was the development of a preoccupation with food stemming from the starvation period. Food & cooking became a focal point of their thoughts, topic of conversations, and was stated as a new found hobby in 40% of volunteers. Meals started to be the only thing they looked forward to in their days and became an obsession for the majority of participants. They would make up recipes from atypical concoctions, one participant creating over 1000 recipes, and rituals developed around eating their meals like slowing down the eating process sometimes taking up to 2 hours, as to relinquish the taste of the food. All meals were demanded to be served hot and the amount of spices added to meals increased exponentially. The consumption of tea, coffee and chewing gum increased dramatically throughout the study period (I say as I chew my fourth piece of gum in 2 hours).

The social changes observed in the men were also paramount.  Despite being relatively extroverted prior to the experiment, the majority of them became socially isolated and expressed feelings of social inadequacy. Their sexual interests reduced dramatically, even to the point of non-existence.

All of the participants reported increase hunger during the starvation phase of the study. Although most were able to handle this with dedication and relative ease, it led others to subjective binges which were subsequently followed by self-reproach, self-criticism and disgust.  During the refeeding phase of the study most of the men reported having increased hunger AFTER eating and a large proportion of the men found it hard to stop eating, particularly on the weekends. These patterns didn’t normalise until about 5 months after refeeding and eating habits didn’t normalise for all of the participants, in which serious binge eating persisted. These findings are parallel to a large body of research of dieters who display binge eating habits that begin from restricting themselves.

Despite the subjects exemplifying high psychological health prior to the experiment the majority of them demonstrated emotional deterioration from starvation. Twenty percent had extreme emotional decline that interfered with everyday functioning including mood swings, depression, negativistic thinking, apathy, irritability, anxiety and angry outbursts.

Cognition, concentration, judgment and comprehension all reduced. Physiological changes such as reduced body temperature, always feeling cold, tingling in hands or feet, decreased heart rate and BMR were observed, in accordance with physical changes like reduced strength and stamina.

These males were fed around 1500 calories and the ‘starvation’ phase of this experiment is in line with the guidelines of how to reduce obesity.  The physical, emotional, social, psychological and physiological alterations observed in this study as a result of starvation correspond to those with evidenced eating disorders.  Every essence of their being become more involved with food and demonstrates the survival mechanisms the human body resorts to in order to keep us alive when we have limited food supply; social and sexual functioning are put on the back burner to food.

What I find important from this study is that despite concern from many people who suffer such symptoms – myself included, that food (and lots of it) was the key to rehabilitation/ What’s even more important is that the participants in this study did not regain an excessive amount of fat during the rehabilitation phase. Instead, they gained back their normal weight to the set point of their natural body weight body plus an extra 10% which subsequently came off after 6 months of resumed normal eating habits. Their bodies needed to trust that they would be consistently fed food and not taken to a point of starvation again.

All of the above symptoms relate to my own and many people who I know. It’s amazing to see that the aim of this study was to STARVE healthy people and examine how their bodies would react. In essence, this is what many people do today when they diet, prep or in their everyday lives and the effects are worrying. These results paint a vivid picture of the psychological and physical decline that is often seen in those who diet and symptoms that were once thought to be a result of an eating disorder are actually the consequence of starvation.

So, excuse me while I go and eat.


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