What We Can Learn from the Minnesota Starvation Study

During World War II, Ancel Keys and the University of Minnesota conducted the most revelatory experiments to look at the consequences of human starvation.

For those who aren’t familiar with the study, its purpose was dual: to determine the physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction and the effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation strategies that would serve as a base to guide the Allied relief assistance to famine victims in Europe and Asia at the end of the war.

Its laboratory simulation of human starvation was controversial, but all of the 36 men selected for the study were willing volunteers, many of whom did the experiment as a way to make a meaningful contribution to the war.

Over the 24 weeks of the active phase of the year-long study, these men consumed an extremely reduced calorie diet to lose 25 percent of their body weight. The diet consisted of 1,800 calories and was comprised of the foods eaten during the war era, like potatoes, macaroni, turnips and dark bread. They were also instructed to expend 3,008 calories a day and walk 22 miles each week.

Following the implementation phase was a closely watched recovery phase in which the study participants would re-nourish themselves.

The results of the Minnesota Study were so comprehensive and expansive that they were published in a two-volume 1,385 page text called The Biology of Human Starvation.

Results of the acute starvation phase:

  • The men experienced nervousness, anxiety, and apathy. They began to withdraw from others, become impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed.
  • The men’s resting metabolic rates declined by 40 percent; their heart volume shrank by 20 percent; their pulses slowed; and their body temperatures dropped.
  • They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry. They also had trouble concentrating, showed impaired judgment and comprehension.
  • They experienced dizzy spells, visual disturbances, ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities, stomachaches, body aches, headaches, insomnia, hair thinning, and lackluster skin and hair.
  • Since gum chewing was allowed, the participants began chewing excessive amounts of gum, one man in particular chewed up to 40 packs in one day.
  • The men reported thinking obsessively about food and creating bizarre food rituals such as cutting up their food to make it last longer or appear bigger.
  • They drank excessive amounts of coffee and tea.
  • Binge-eating episodes became common as some men could not control their appetite around food.

Results following the acute starvation phase:

  • Following the experiment, researchers determined that in order to replenish the protein, vitamin and mineral stores, a diet of 4,000 calories a day was needed for many months.
  • While they were free to eat as they wished, none of the men felt “back to normal,” even three months after the experiment ended.
  • One man consumed so much food that he had to have his stomach pumped.
  • Many men reported not being able to feel a truly satisfied feeling of satiety, even though their access to food was unlimited following the experiment.
  • Initially, the men gained back their weight plus an additional 10 percent.
  • After nine months, their body weight plateaued and returned to their pre-study weights.

Even though the Minnesota Study is more than 60 years old, it holds powerful implications for today’s diet-crazy and weight-obsessed culture. We can learn a lot about the importance of providing our bodies with the nourishment it needs to function physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The findings shed a strong light on how the fad diets of today’s culture and severe caloric restriction from eating disorders like anorexia have profound long-term physical and mental health consequences.

If you ever thought your diet was making you crazy, you may have been right.

(image via: University of Minnesota Press)

Also read:

The Dukan Diet: A Fad Diet Followed by Celebrities

Common Eating Disorders Defined

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