Lessons Learned from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was a landmark study done back in the 1940’s by researcher Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota.  It is still quite relevant today, and has many implications for eating disorder treatment and recovery.

Recap of how they did the study:

  1. Purpose: To determine the best ways to re-feed people coming out of concentration camps from the war
  2. 32 healthy men: Average age 25, well educated, scored normal on personality test, no eating disorders
  3. 3 months control period: To assess their metabolism and caloric needs
  4. 6 months semi-starvation: Calories cut approximately in half to produce weight loss of 24% starting weight (note: that’s a drastic amount of weight loss)
  5. 3 months re-feeding: The men were allowed to eat as much as they wanted
  6. Monitoring the following year

How this is relevant to eating disorders
This helped us distinguish the effects of sheer starvation, versus the psychological aspects of the eating disorder itself. Remember, these were otherwise healthy men with no eating disorders, so the physical and psychological effects were due to the caloric restriction. What was really fascinating was how many of the men’s behaviors started to mimic eating disorders, as you’ll see below. 

Changes in eating behavior:

  1. Preoccupied with food - constantly thinking and talking about it
  2. Strong food cravings
  3. Stealing and hiding food
  4. Obsessing over recipes and cookbooks
  5. Demanding food and beverages to be served very hot
  6. Playing with food while eating, and eating very slowly
  7. Excessive gum chewing
  8. Poor table manners

Personality changes:

  1. More depressed and irritable
  2. Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  3. Loss of ambition and interest in things previously enjoyed
  4. More neurotic
  5. Restless, anxious, hard to sit still
  6. Social interaction decreased
  7. Conversation centered around food
  8. Highly irritable and hostile with each other

The chicken or the egg?

So it turns out that rather than the eating disorder causing these behaviors, the act of undereating may actually be what causes these symptoms in people who suffer from this illness. 

Therefore, for some people, getting their brain and body back to a well-nourished state will actually resolve some of their thoughts and behaviors, or at least lessen the intensity of them.  Loved ones often report this as a positive sign in treatment, when their loved one “seems more like him/herself again.” 

It’s of course much more complicated than, “Just eat more,” but that certainly is part of the equation, and why nutrition is such a key part of treatment and recovery.

Dr. Kim McCallum calls this phenomenon “Hungry Brain” and reiterates that the only treatment for it is FOOD. No amount of medication or therapy is going to correct it on its own. Sure, meds and therapy may be useful tools in conjunction with food, but if the food isn’t in place, the rest won’t correct the issue.

Ironic, huh?

The twisted irony about all of this is that the very thing that a person with an eating disorder needs to do when they’ve become malnourished is to eat - and the food is literally the thing they are afraid of. 

It’s like being dehydrated in the desert and afraid to drink a glass of water.

This is part of what makes eating disorders so hard to overcome. If a person has an illness like pneumonia, they usually want to take their medicine to feel better.  But for a person with an eating disorder, their “medicine” (the food) scares them. 

Key takeaways

  1. Starvation has a profound effect on a person’s thoughts and behaviors (not to mention the physical toll it takes on the body - I’ve written more about this on my blog).
  2. It’s essential to reverse the malnutrition for these thoughts and behaviors to return to normal.
  3. Reversing malnutrition is hard to do, and comes with it’s own set of unique challenges, which I’ve also written more about here in my post about the “refeeding” process. 

Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body.