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The Minnesota Starvation Study: what does it mean for those with eating disorders?

By Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director

 

“The malnourishment of an eating disorder is even more serious than in the Minnesota study”

At the end of the Second World War, researchers in the US military accidentally learned more about the psychological effects of dieting than they bargained for. The experiment was designed to find the best way to re-feed millions of those under German occupation after the war. They found 36 healthy young men, volunteers who were conscientious objectors to combat. These strapping fellows were observed eating and behaving and eating normally for a few months.

In the 2nd phase of the experiment, the volunteers went from their normal diet of an average 3200 calories to only 1800 calories a day, mostly in the form of the kinds of starches and basic foods available to Europe during the war.

As predicted, the men lost weight. They became listless and lethargic. They looked thinner. But they went about their studies and activities and work. They continued to walk over 20 miles a week.

What was surprising is what happened to the men’s thinking. They became moody, socially withdrawn, and keenly focused on food. While watching movies they were uninterested in the love stories but perked up during scenes with food. Mealtimes became very tense, and some developed rituals and strange habits. Some chewed gum to excess. Some collected recipes. Reportedly they lost interest in anything but the next meal.

Is any of this sounding familiar to you as a family member of someone experiencing an eating disorder?

Semi-Starvation can bring on extreme psychological effects and behaviors

The Minnesota study could never be reproduced now: it would be considered unethical.

Yet the most shocking result of the Minnesota Study may be this: when the researchers let the participants begin eating more normally, conflict between men became intense. Some of the volunteers stole and binged on food, one even from a trash can, resulting in tremendous guilt and shame. One found a way to get out of the study by deliberately dropping a car he was working on, resulting in amputation of one of his fingers.

The lesson of the Minnesota Starvation study isn’t the starvation. It isn’t the extremes: it is the edges of malnourishment

The volunteers for the Minnesota study were eventually able to return to normal life, but some suffered from bingeing behavior for a long time and most gained weight after the study above their original levels,which took a year to go back to their individual normal. Some reported psychological effects long after the study, and surviving volunteers interviewed many years later vividly remember the experience.

The volunteers of the study didn’t have eating disorders. But they did show us a lot about what semi-starvation does to the mind and to behaviors.

Patients with eating disorders have one thing in common with those volunteers: a period of inadequate nourishment, and an energy deficit: they consumed fewer calories than their bodies needed. This energy deficit is true for binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. For some, like the 1945 volunteers, a year of eating freely resolved their issues. But for adolescents and young adults with developing brains a bout of low nourishment can result in damage to the brain and development. For those with a predisposition to develop an eating disorder, low nourishment can trigger a life-threatening mental illness that hijacks their lives.

The malnourishment of an eating disorder is even more serious than in the Minnesota study, which lasted one year in full-grown adults. Eating disorder sufferers are often dieting, binging, and purging for far longer and at critical growth stages.

There is no safe level of low nourishment. For those predisposed to an eating disorder, any restriction puts the body, and the brain, into a state of semi-starvation, including:

  • Delaying meals
  • Restricting calories
  • Limited food choices
  • Dieting
  • New vegetarian or “clean” eating regimes
  • Exercising to burn off calories or lower stress

Your loved one’s new ideas about food, about their appearance, withdrawal from social activities, depression, anxiety, uncontrolled eating, and new exercise habits may largely be direct results of and driven by semi-starvation.

With gratitude and appreciation for the Minnesota Starvation Study participants and researchers. Learn more at:

Minnesota Starvation Experiment Wikipedia

They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment , The Journal of Nutrition June 2005

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4 Comments

  1. Jane

    Well I was aware of this study, I feel it still kind of takes away some hope to those families with loved ones /sufferers who started restricting in their teens /early adulthood .. if brain damage happens I assume that is permanent esp before thw age of 26 when the brain completes development.
    And I def see that happening to a loved one who is now 30 who’s mh / anxiety / depression, obsessive need for order BDD etc has been escalating or newly developing to the point of complete inability to function . ..And the really frustrating thing is we can talk all we want about getting targeted ED psychiatric care ,Reg Dietitians who are skilled in eds but I can tell you there’s nobody that takes insurance that I have found that specialize in this area. The ones who do take insurance say they treat all the above but being a healthcare provider myself and one who had done research extensively for the past 12 yrs , It’s clear that most have not enough training in this area and have proven to be unhelpful I honestly think Mental health care professionals who want to practice should have to maintain a percentage of patients on insurance just like for example home insurance companies they must accept a certain number of” high risk “clients to be able to operate in the state.We need to get better access for all sufferers. I personally have exhausted all my savings on getting specialized care for my loved one. There are i’m sure plenty here in the same boat .
    Sorry to be such a Debbie downer , I am just venting some I guess, but in reality I march on ,searching for answers and help,
    and keeping the faith for my loved one who has none left, pretending I’m a rock…ok enough from “ Debbie” lol
    So on a positive note … Stay well all, wear your masks a few more months, the light at the end of the tunnel is shining in on Covid ..

    • Mary

      Hi, Jane: I have a 37 yr old son who has had eating disorders for 20 years. He does not want any help. If he did, getting his insurance on board is a nightmare. I am hoping that, as Laura indicates, the light will go on and he will recover. Venting is fine; so is hoping. We are in this together.

  2. Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh

    Dear Jane, Of course you’re feeling down, and you should vent all you need to!!!! Let me offer my positive note: I personally know several people who fully recovered after years of ED, some of them having been QUITE undernourished for a LONG time. My understanding from clinicians and researchers is that the brain function is reparable with full nutrition and restoration, at all stages. And, there are clearly (just as in schizophrenia) many instances of spontaneous recovery — where the brain lock just eases and the person is able to access insight and self-motivation. There is always hope, even when the law and treatment providers and the person has lost relationships and time. I’ve seen it!!

  3. Dr Gareth Lyons

    It is a pity that the Minnesota Experiment is often forgotten by academics or looked down upon due to its age and the different ethical standards.

    I had to get a copy from the British Library for my PhD as it is almost impossible to get a copy in the UK and to get a print from the University of Minnesota archives is quite experience. It really should be in print. As to my knowledge it is the only study of starvation with legitimate volunteers and I doubt any ethics board would ever allow its recreation.

    Todd Tucker’s book is a very enjoyable read and to enjoy it you do not have to have read the study.

    It has always baffled me that in the case of anorexia the DSM IV used a 15% reduction in body weight as a guide to severity, and I think this % was greater in DSM 3. Yet Keys showed that in 20% of his sample a 7% loss of body weight caused emotional problems which affected day to day living.

    I always think if people in the health care system had been properly aware of Keys would I have been able to get help more quickly and anorexia not have the negative impact it had on my life.

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