They were starved.  They were irritable and anxious.  They were exhausted.  They couldn’t concentrate on anything except hunger and food.  They were miserable.

They were volunteers in a study known as “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment” by Ancel Keys.  During World War II, three dozen conscientious objectors (men who refused to serve in the military due to their beliefs) entered into a year-long experiment to test the effects of starvation and re-feeding on the body.  The study sought to understand changes that took place within humans during a time of famine.  The findings were remarkable.

Researchers studied the all-male participants for 12 weeks while they ate a steady diet.  They took note of their physical characteristics, as well as their personality traits.  After this baseline research, the researchers nearly cut the men’s caloric intake in half for six months.

The men became physically weak – so weak that one man couldn’t push himself through a rotating door.  They experienced edema, anemia, neurological deficits, and were pale and cold.  They became obsessed with food – hoarding their rations, eating more slowly, collecting cookbooks, staring at bakery windows.  They couldn’t focus on the classes they had signed up to take during the experiment, and many withdrew from their studies. They became depressed, moody, and struggled to find pleasure in their normal activities.   Those who had previously been outgoing turned inward.  They lost ambition and drive.

After six months of this, they were re-fed.

As the men’s caloric intake increased, some physical and mental changes began to stabilize.  Even when the men were eating the same number of calories they were used to prior to the starvation period, they continued to struggle emotionally, cognitively, and physically.  Interestingly, many of the participants required significantly more calories than previously thought to restore their weight.  One participant reported that this rehabilitation process was “no better” than the semi-starvation period, as he did not feel he was “coming back” at all.  Though the researchers continued to increase the participants’ caloric intake, all the men agreed that they were not “back to normal” even after the rehabilitation period.

It took the men an estimated two months to two years to fully recover from the experiment.  This was following a six month period of cutting their caloric intake nearly in half.  Though this experiment was intended to study the effects of famine, its findings are often cited in the context of eating disorders.  Someone with an eating disorder may significantly decrease their calorie intake, and this may last for longer than six months.  In the context of the Keys study, this speaks to how challenging the recovery and re-feeding process may become.  Through treatment, patients often wonder why their meal plans include so many components, or why they cannot just slightly increase their caloric intake.  The effects of starvation are significant, and full recovery requires nutritional rehabilitation of the body and brain.

A study like this cannot be recreated today due to ethical concerns.  Those struggling with an eating disorder and the overwhelming task of re-feeding may benefit from reviewing this experiment and reflecting on the effects that starving the body has on personality, health, and overall well-being.

Source: Kalm, L.M. & Semba, R.D. (2005). They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment. American Society for Nutritional Science. Retrieved from the Journal of Nutrition.

About the author: 

Erika Vargas, LMHC, is a clinician in the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient & Partial Hospitalization Programs at the WBC Braintree location.  She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.