[Trigger Warning: This blog contains calorie counts which may be triggering for eating disorder sufferers].
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is a well-known study which illustrates the negative health effects caused by diets. The study began during World War II with the purpose of understanding human starvation to in order to help the famine relief efforts after the war.
The Minnesota Experiment
36 men were chosen. During the 12 month control period, the men received 3200 calories of food. This was followed by 6 months of semi-starvation in which they received about 1570 calories per day. The last three months was a nutritional rehabilitation period in which they were gradually refed, 2000 – 3000 calories per day.
During the study, the men were expected to live as they normally would and to walk 35 km a week and burn 3000 calories per day.
In the 6 month semi-starvation period, the men lost about 25% of their body weight. By the end of this 6 months and by the end of the rehabilitation period, the men experienced dramatic physical, social and mental changes.
One participant described the eating rituals men developed. Some people diluted their food in water to make it seem like more. Others would put a little food in their mouth and hold it in their mouth for a long time to savor it. Some meals could take two hours to consume when normally it would have been over in a matter of minutes. Chewing gum, coffee and tea consumption increased dramatically in the experiment as well. Many of the men started collecting cookbooks and one reported to owning nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over.
Food became the main topic of conversation and day time dreams. Concentration on other activities non-food related became difficult as food preoccupied their thoughts instead. One man interviewed in 2003 commenting on the food obsession said, “if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate”.
The obsession was so great that three of the men ended up changing careers becoming professional chefs after the experiment.
During the refed period many men started binge eating. They could no longer control their appetites and were more or less eating continuously.
3 months post refeed period some men were consuming 6000 calories on most days and on the weekends close to 10000 calories per day. 5 months later some still reported to no longer being able to feel satisfied eating despite eating abnormally large amounts of food.
One man reported that after the starvation period it was “no better”, “partially because there was not a noticeable relief from feelings of hunger”. Another man described the next year as a “year-long cavity” that needed to be filled. Another after the experiment had to be taken to hospital due to get his stomach pumped because “he overdid it”.
Not all men completed the study. Two volunteers broke diet; one stopped at various shops for sundaes and malted later stole food and another admitted to chewing excessive amounts of food and eating food scraps from garbage cans. Both also suffered severe psychological distress during the semistarvation period, resulting in brief stays in a psychiatric ward.
Psychological and Neurological Changes
During the experiment, the men reported anger outbursts, depression, anxiety and mood swings, and. They experienced fatigue, dizziness and lack of coordination, They lost interest in sex and their relationships began suffering. They also withdrew from social interaction preferring to be alone.
Physically the men looked gaunt, lost strength and lost stamina. They lost hair and experienced muscle soreness. Internal physiological changes were also apparent with lower body temperature, decreased heart rate, decreased respiration rate and the metabolic rate dropped 40% than prior to the experiment.
Food restriction can be incredibly damaging. Eating disorders often stem from having been on restrictive diets. When a person deprives themselves of food, they become fixated on food, the drive for food and survival goes into full swing. Binge eating can be the consequence of being undernourished for too long, it is not due to lack of will power. Other effects from prolonged dieting include digestive issues, hormonal imbalances and mood disturbances.
If you want to lose weight there is a right and wrong way to do it. As you can see from the experiment, the participants consumed 1570 calories. Many people are following diet online plans which contain less calories than this.
I help people eat intuitively, healthily without the restrictions, consistently. Lifestyle recommendations are part of the plan. Working with a nutritionist gives you the support to keep going and make adjustments so that you keep losing weight (assuming you need too). To book please use the contact page.
You may also download your free guide to help you find food freedom and break from binge eating.
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.