This article was originally published on March 14, 2016.
In November 1944, 36 men reported to the University of Minnesota as volunteers for a 13-month study under research scientist Ancel Keys. What became known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment has long been cited as perhaps the most important study on the mental, physical, and social effects of food restriction. The rapid deterioration, the strange and often alarming changes in the subjects' behavior, and the long-lasting effects of "semi-starvation" are hallmarks to anyone familiar with disordered eating.
What's not as frequently discussed — but just as evident — is this study's implications about common dieting. After all, these men were not starved to the brink of death, but fed approximately 1,600 calories a day. Jenny Craig, for example, prescribes meal plans as low as 1,200. As we head deeper into diet and "bikini body" season, a story like this becomes even more harrowing in the light of our culture-wide practice of calorie counting. During this experiment, there was no underlying source or motivation for deprivation. Deprivation itself drove these men to "the threshold of insanity."
As World War II drew to a close, news media flooded the U.S. with horrific accounts of starved populations and refugees in war-torn nations abroad. Ancel Keys, one of history's most influential nutrition researchers, conceived of a study to provide data for relief workers. Initial findings were first published in Men and Hunger: A Psychological Manual For Relief Workers. Rather than focusing simply on the nutritional requirements for re-feeding a starving person, he wanted to offer insight on how starvation (or in this case, "semi-starvation") alters "the changes in motivation, then the behavioral consequences of the physical changes, and finally, the emotional, intellectual, and social changes which so profoundly influence the personality."
The volunteer subjects were all conscientious objectors who were eager to help the war effort. "Our friends and colleagues in other places were putting their lives on the line," said Samuel Legg, subject No. 20, in an interview 60 years later. "We wanted to do the same." Out of the hundreds who volunteered, 36 were deemed mentally and physically healthy enough to participate. They had basic daily work assignments, were required to walk 22 miles a week, and keep a diary. But aside from mealtime, there were no restrictions placed on their social lives.
The experiment began with a 12-week control period, wherein the men were fed approximately 3,200 calories a day. (Throughout the experiment, rations varied slightly for each subject, depending on individual metabolic factors.) At the end of the control phase, their calories were cut by approximately 50% and the six-month semi-starvation period began.
Instantly, the men reported a decline in both physical energy and personal motivation. Keys and his fellow researchers noted an overwhelming apathy among the subjects, punctuated by paradoxical periods of irrational irritability. "Standing in line at the diet kitchen before being served was the source of explosive conduct," they write in Men and Hunger. At the table, they often turned on one another, annoyed by each other's voices and the increasingly strange eating habits that many men developed.
"They would coddle [the food] like a baby or handle it and look over it as they would some gold. They played with it like kids making mud pies," wrote one subject. As the months went on, eating became an even more ritualized and often grotesque affair. Plate-licking was commonplace as the men sought out ways to extend mealtime and or feel fuller. They diluted potatoes with water, held bites in their mouths for a long time without swallowing, or labored over combining the food on their plate, "making weird and seemingly distasteful concoctions," the researchers reported.
Food became the sole source of fascination and motivation. Many men began obsessively collecting recipes ("Stayed up until 5 a.m. last night studying cookbooks," wrote one). They found themselves distracted by constant daydreams of food. Some sublimated their cravings by purchasing or stealing food; one man began stealing cups from coffee shops. They guzzled water, seeking fullness. Some took up smoking to stave off hunger and others chewed up to 30 packs of gum a day until the laboratory banned it.
Meanwhile, all other elements of life seemed to fade into mere background noise. Over and over again, the researchers reported indifference and boredom when it came to personal development and basic socializing. "Budding romances collapsed" and sexual desire evaporated. At parties, the subjects found conversation both difficult and pointless. They all preferred a solitary trip to the movies, adding that, while they could recognize comedy, they never felt compelled to laugh anymore. "In a store, when shopping, they were easily pushed around by the crowd," the research team reported. "Their usual reaction was resignation."
Sometimes, this permeating dullness gave way to moments of inexplicable euphoria followed by an emotional crash. One subject was eventually eliminated from the project for sneaking unauthorized food in town. After doing so, he found himself so "high" that he stopped at 17 soda shops on the walk home. "He kidded with the fountain girls, thought the lights more beautiful than ever, felt that the world was a very happy place," the researchers reported. "This degenerated into a period of extreme pessimism and remorse; he felt he had nothing to live for, that he had failed miserably to keep his commitment of staying on reduced rations."
At last, the semi-starvation phase ended and the 20-week rehabilitation period began. It was during this stage that the most surprising finding emerged: Physical recovery progressed, if slowly; yet, the subjects’ mental states seemed to decline further. The plate-licking continued, irritability became aggression, and mood swings were more severe. While chopping wood one day, Samuel Legg brought the axe down on his own hand, amputating three fingers. "I admit to being crazy mixed up at the time," Legg later explained. "I am not ready to say I did it on purpose. I am not ready to say I didn't."
To everyone's relief, the subjects' moods and social behavior stabilized three months later. But when it came to eating, the men agreed they were not "back to normal." Many ate "more or less continuously" and a subgroup of the subjects continued bingeing to the point of sickness, even eight months later. At least one man was hospitalized for several days after having his stomach pumped.
"Hunger differs radically from the delightful nuances of appetite," wrote the researchers in Men and Hunger. Semi-starvation had temporarily changed these men in many ways, but what seemed to linger long after was this inability to distinguish between the constant gnawing of hunger and normal appetite. Appetite is a question to be answered with a meal. Hunger is a need, an enduring hollowness that begs for satisfaction by any means necessary.
"They were men who postponed their living, while they endured the awful present," writes Keys and his fellow researchers in Men and Hunger. Many subjects continued working in public or charitable service; when asked to reflect on their participation in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, they indeed saw it as a worthy sacrifice for the greater good — as well they should. They provided invaluable data on the treatment of starving populations. It's unlikely Keys was thinking of hardcore dieters and disordered eaters at the time, yet he offered insight into those "semi-starved" people, as well.
"We were starving under the best possible medical conditions. And most of all, we knew the exact day on which our torture was going to end," said Legg, well aware that millions had no such comfort. But his body didn't know that. And our hardwired survival instincts don't know the difference between a 30-day cleanse and a famine, either. The binges, the fixation, the enduring hold of food anxiety — all these symptoms ring true to anyone who’s experienced food restriction, voluntarily or not.
Perhaps the most chilling correlation: the postponement of living. How often do we put off something until we've lost the weight? That familiar inertia is obvious. But what this study indicates is that it might not simply be our desire to wait for a thinner body to start dating, take that trip, or pursue a career goal. It may also be the hunger itself keeping us at home, alone and waiting.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.