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."
"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."
Sometimes, this permeating dullness gave way to moments of inexplicable euphoria followed by an emotional crash.