The Minnesota Starvation Study tells us everything we need to know about how dieting sends our bodies and minds into a spin – and how long it takes to ‘recover from a diet. But most people don’t know about it, and most, like I did, get pissed when they find out!
The Famous Minnesota Starvation Study
The human race’s greatest threat to survival has always been starvation. The most devastating famines are well documented in the historical record of the race, and even now in 2008, more people die every day from starvation than from violence.
And millions of people, mainly women, are voluntarily starving themselves in the name of gaining the ideal “look”. To gain this look, they must reduce their calorie intake so that their body will use its fat stores for energy, and thereby change the shape of the body to something more pleasing.
Reducing calorie intake for any prolonged period, however, triggers what’s called Starvation Syndrome. Science doesn’t know what triggers it but the effects are plain:
- Shut down the body’s demands for energy – that is, lower the metabolic rate and temperature
- Initiate a search for food.
This is the most difficult aspect for dieters, because food cravings and sharpened food senses really feel like obsession!
It’s enough to make a person wonder if they’re insane, or just weak willed.
We already know the answer to that one, though!
Why Study Starvation?
At the end of the WW2 theto prepare to re-feed the starving millions of people in Europe in the healthiest most efficient way.
create a controlled starving population and then find the best ways to return them to good health as fast as possible.
The team of scientists studied 36 physically and emotionally strong and healthy young men over 12 months, who moved onto the campus of the University of Minnesota for the duration of the study. Most were members of the pacifist Brethren Church and therefore conscientious objectors to the war, well-educated, and idealistic.
Starvation Study: First Three Months
The first three months of the study closely monitored the men’s normal eating and activity patterns.
For the next six months the men followed a semi-starvation diet of around 1500 calories a day (yes 1500 calories is considered ‘starvation’!!) and the final three months involved re-feeding.
During the six months of semi-starvation the men lost around 25% of their body weight. For a woman in the 2000s, who is constantly pressured to be perfectly fashionably thin, the patterns that emerged during the Minnesota Starvation study are startling
- The men became obsessed with food – it was their major topic of conversation and reading, so much so that after the study several changed their career plans and became chefs!
- They dawdled over their meals for up to two hours.
- They ate every last crumb and many even licked their plates.
- They drank more tea and coffee and ate more gum to feel like they were full.
- They smoked more, and some non-smokers became smokers.
- Their weight loss was also an endless topic of conversation. Several reported being annoyed about it in others, but were unable to stop themselves doing it.
- They became highly nervous, restless, anxious, apathetic, moody, tired, and depressed.
- Mood swings were common.
- They were unable to concentrate and their interests narrowed.
- They became very self-centered and antisocial, looking out only for themselves; their sense of compassion for others faded along with their idealism, previously a driving force in their lives.
- They lost their ambition.
- They neglected their personal appearance.
- They lost interest in their girlfriends, replacing their pictures with pictures of food. They seemed to lose their libidos.
- Psychological tests confirmed that their hypochondria, hysteria, and depression had all increased markedly.
- Their metabolisms dropped by almost 40%, saving 600 calories per day.
- Their heart volumes shrank by about 20%. Their pulses slowed and they felt cold.
Many other physical symptoms rose: skin ulcers, thinning hair, aching eyes, ringing in the ears, insomnia, dizziness, stomach pains, headaches, muscle cramps, tingling in their extremities, frequent urination, and they reported feeling old.
Does any of that sound familiar, oh dieter? And we haven’t done the re-feeding phase yet.
Starvation Study Refeeding phase
As soon as they were allowed to eat more, they gorged.
Their appetites were insatiable.
Most found it hard to stop eating even when they felt stuffed.
They continued to lick their plates.
In week 13 of re-feeding calorie restrictions were removed so they could eat whatever they wanted: they ate over 5000 calories each, each day. They ate nearly continuously, and slept most of the time they were not eating, as their bodies rejuvenated.
On the weekends they ate up to 10,000 calories.
Their social behaviour was not improved – they still lived essentially isolated and alone and that continued for nearly five months before their interest in others returned; and indication of moving out of survival-focused mode.
After the Study Ended
The study team followed the men after the formal study ended. Here’s what happened to their post-study weight.
They rapidly gained body fat – so rapidly that they quickly exceeded their original weights by 10%.
Then their bodies stabilised as the food supply was guaranteed. Within about nine months after refeeding began most had returned to their pre-study weight.
The men who ate the most food had the greatest increase in metabolic rate.
Their personalities normalised as well. But it took a YEAR before they felt like their ‘old’ selves again.
What does the Minnesota Starvation Study mean now?
Does any of that behaviour and weight-shifting pattern sound familiar? It sure did to me, as a dieter for nearly two decades.
And do you feel better for knowing that a focussed scientific study observed these behaviours in robust mentally-healthy young men?
I know I felt better about all aspects of myself when I first read it – it helped me make sense of the way I felt while I was dieting.
And then I got really really angry – all those thousands of dollars I’d spent on diet programs, pills, powders, potions and lotions, none of which were ever going to work long-term; all that time and effort and semi-depression and self-loathing for yet another failure; all my trust in the authors and the doctors and the companies: abused.
For me, find the Minnesota Starvation Study was a gift for which I am eternally grateful. It helped me stop hating my body’s desire for food. And it helped me learn to be very choosy about the quality of information I allow to influence my psyche and my behaviour.
When I started eating real food in the quantities that my body wanted, I also stepped onto the path of learning to love and accept my female body for the marvel that it is, rather than the size zero that it is not!
So when you’re dieting to change the size or shape of your body, and notice that you’re obsessing about food, you’re not lazy, or lacking willpower, please please remember that the Starvation Study has told you what you really need to know: you’re working with a human body that is completely focussed on staying alive.
The Minnesota Starvation Study has never been duplicated because of its innate cruelty; but its three volumes of well-documented data are irrefutable: diets make your mind and your body crazy. I know you know this, like I did.