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."
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.