The Minnesota starvation experiment, an infamous study conducted in 1944 involving the voluntary starvation of 36 healthy young American and British men, was conducted in order to determine the best method(s) to treat victims of mass starvation in Europe following world war two.
The study is considered to be one of the most critical pieces of historical education to share in the treatment of eating disorders, and I am devoting today’s post to telling you a bit about it, and how it links to eating disorders.
The year-long study was divided into three parts. The first 3 months of the groundbreaking medical research consisted of participants being fed to maintain their optimum weight, consuming up to 3200 calories a day. From the third month, the men had their rations dramatically cut to just 1570 calories a day. This deprivation took place for a period of 6 months.
The disturbing thing about this is that it is widely accepted in today’s society that a reasonable weight loss diet for women is 1200 calories a day, with many of the major weight loss companies promoting this number. For men the number is, slightly higher, at 1500 calories. In both cases, this is less than the 1570 calorie allowance in the Minnesota Starvation experiment, whereby the impact of starvation was physically and mentally extremely damaging. How then, can diet culture get away with promoting such damaging, life threatening even, ideals?
Following the 6 month starvation period, the men were fed 2000-3000 calories a day. The study ended with the volunteers being allowed to eat an unlimited number of calories.
The men were monitored throughout the experiment, with the impact of restriction/deprivation after the initial 3 months had commenced being evident. It is reported that ‘food quickly became an obsession’, with some of the volunteers ‘reading cook books all the time.’ A diary entry from one of the particpants read; ‘stayed up until 5AM last night studying cookbooks. They are so absorbing I can’t stay away from them.’ This quote in particular resonated with me. When I think back to how I was at my poorliest, I remember how I used to spend my time flicking through cooking magazines and looking at pictures of food on social media. I had lost interest in everything apart from food- it consumed every part of my life.
The men’s food obsession was evident not only in their waking life, but in their sleeping lives too. Food and eating became focal points in conversations and even in dreams.
Diary entries from the starvation phase also highlighted the way in which the men’s perception of the food being served to them altered. Although the food they were eating was incredibly bland, to them it tasted delicious. They savored every mouthful, cutting food into smaller pieces, eating slower to make it last longer, and adding spices and salt to increase the flavor of food. They even used to ‘soup’ their meals, mixing everything with water to create the illusion that they had more food than in reality. This is a common tactic adopted by Anorexia sufferers. I know from personal experience that when I have been/am struggling, the food that I eat tastes so much nicer than it does when I am eating freely without restricting. This is because food is the only thing on our mind when we deny ourselves of it, so when we allow ourselves to eat it, it becomes the highlight of our day. This could explain why people with Anorexia sometimes go on to develop binge eating disorders.
The changes in eating of the men was also observable in the way they reacted to food scarcity. At meal times, participants were recorded as eating all the food on their plates to the ‘last crumb.’ Some became visibly upset when non-participants (staff who were not part of the experiment) ‘wasted’ food by discarding of their remains. This extreme distaste for wasting food is a common impact in individuals with Anorexia Nervosa.
The physical outcome of the experiment? Those that were able to stick it out and reach the end lost, on average, 25% of their body weight, mainly from the breakdown of organ tissue (perhaps most disturbingly, the shrinking of the heart) and bones as their bodies started to literally eat themselves to source energy. Decreased heart rates were also noted, with the average rate dropping from a healthy 55 beats per minute at the start of the experiment, to just 35 beats per minute towards the end.
The psychological effects were just as prominent as the physical, with the men becoming increasingly anxious and depressed as the experiment went on. Concentration lacked, with one man chopping his own finger off by accident when he was attempting to chop wood. Strength and energy suffered a significant decline, with the majority of the particpants loosing interest in subjects that used to interest them. The men also become largey irritable, frequently getting into petty arguments with each other without needing any provocation.
It was noted that the only times depressed participants showed positive emotional reactions were in response to discussing their weight, food, or hunger.
It took the men several months, in some cases even years, to fully recover following their restoration back to health at the end of the study. An outcome I find very interesting is the fact that a proportion of the men involved in the study, all of whom had no previous interest in cooking, became professional chefs after the experiment had ended. This shows how food restriction creates food obsession. When you restrict something, you want it more. It becomes your number one priority and the only thing you can think about.
The study and its impacts have also made me consider the recovery process. The obsession and preoccupation with food during restriction causes one to think less about anything else in their life. This is why people with eating disorders often loose interest in hobbies they used to enjoy. This can make the prospect of recovery incredibly scary, since individuals might believe that their whole identity is centered around food restriction. It is therefore essential that people in recovery get help to rediscover themselves and develop a life outside of their eating disorder. It is important to remember that ones personality is masked by the effects of being underweight, and will emerge again only if weight is regained.
Similarly, the study has raised questions about how far psychological problems can be treated in the context of eating disorders, if the patient is phyiscally underweight.
The effects of being underweight contribute to maintaining eating disorder behaviours- being preoccupied with food and eating, loosing interest in everything other than food, becoming socially withdrawn, becoming indecisive, feeling a heightened need for routine, and feeling a heightened sense of fullness after eating. Therefore, for someone with Anorexia, regaining weight is necessary before mental recovery can take place, rather than vice versa. By remaining underweight, the mental and physical discomfort associated with eating disorders will continue, since one cannot begin to engage in therapy before they have begun to put on weight. Put another way, ‘the mind may make the body sick, but only the body can help the mind be well again.’
I hope that you have found this post interesting. I have certainly enjoyed writing about it.