The Great Starvation Experiment

I've mentioned the Minnesota Starvation Study many times on my blog. For those who may not have heard about it, a (very) brief summary: at the end of WWII, it was obvious that Europe was going to be facing famine, but no one knew the best way to refeed people. So Ancel Keys recruited a group of healthy, young conscientious objectors (all male) to undergo a period of semi-starvation so that various diets for re-feeding could be tested.

The results are fascinating: all of the men developed symptoms that today would be classified as stereotypical of those with an eating disorder. Although none of the men actually developed an eating disorder as a result of the experiment, they became obsessed with food, anxious, depressed, irritable, etc.

But in studying the results of the experiment, it's easy to forget the men who actually participated in the study. An article from the Journal of Nutrition summarized the experiment* and the experiences of the surviving participants 60 years later. One of the participants recalled:

I don’t know many other things in my life that I looked forward to being over with any more than this experiment. And it wasn’t so much ... because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one’s life ... food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate.

Yet despite this, virtually all of the participants expressed a willingness to do the experiment over again. They wanted to take part in the war effort and bring peace to the world, just as non-combatants. They saw it as a way to truly help the suffering.

Of course, no one realized then how relevant this would be to the field of eating disorders, but this is perhaps one of the areas where the results of the experiment are most widely used.

There's a book out about the experiment, titled The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker, that I would like to read as well.

*There are a few potentially triggering pictures in the article. Just an FYI.

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Cammy said...

Wow, why the high cover price on that book? Jesus christ, it's almost as bad as textbook. BUT look at how cheap used copies are, even though it's only two years old? Strange disparity, but I won't complain. Off to add a USED copy to my shopping cart now...

Lisa said...

Thanks for letting us know about the book. Spring break's coming up, and I'll have some time to read non-school related things.

Sad Mom said...

The article was fascinating and I will probably read it several times. What stood out though, on first read, is not the behaviors and physiological stresses of the starvation period (all too familiar) but the re-feeding and how the men felt still deprived and hungry; how long it took for them to feel 'recovered'. After three months they hadn't gained back what they had lost in either weight or psycho-socially.

Think I'll send pdf copies to our nutritionist and therapist for discussion.

Just Eat It! said...

My mom just got the book the other day. I'll probably have to borrow it.

Many of my doctors have referred to this experiment in the past because it seems to be the only one of its kind.

Carrie Arnold said...

It probably will be the only one of its kind because I doubt the institutional review boards of today would approve it.

But I am going to get a used copy as well, as soon as I can find some other books

Gaining Back My Life said...

I've read about it on the net, and it is indeed fascinating. I didn't know there was a book, though. Thanks for sharing.

Cammy said...

I know I asked you this before, but I can't remember which post the comment was on to look up your answer (sorry!): did I ever send you that paper I did about anorexia for my medical anthropology class? I used a lot of info from this experiment. Anyway, I couldn't remember if I'd already shared the paper with you, let me know either way, I'd value your thoughts about it.

Carrie Arnold said...


No, please send that to me. I would LOVE to read it!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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