Study Review; Minnesota Starvation Experiment 3


Key Points

1. Ironically, malnutrition makes a person not want to gain weight. The catch-22 is that once the person gains some weight, their brain starts functioning properly again and they then often are happy about gaining weight. A person with Anorexia who is underweight is not going to willingly want to gain weight to start with.

2. A starving person is often resistant to gaining weight and therefore must be pushed to do so.

3. All participants in this study overshot their pre-study weight by 10 percent once they started to gain weight. They all returned naturally to their pre-study weight within two years. In eating disorder recovery overshooting the pre-eating disorder weight is required in order to make a full and long-term recovery.

 

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was a clinical study performed at the University of Minnesota between November 19, 1944 and December 20, 1945. The investigation was designed to determine the physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction and the effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation strategies. It was done in WW2 and way lead by Ansel Keys who was motivated to establish a better understanding of the re-feeding requirements that people would need after the war. He used 36 male volunteers.

starvation

In 2004 18 of these men were found and interviewed and not one of them expressed any regret about having done the starvation study. In fact, they all said that they would do it again. I have volunteered for scientific studies in the past, when I was suffering chronic insomnia I allowed the University of Bristol to test sleeping aids on me, that was bad enough having to sleep at the Uni labs with electrodes wired to me head. I would never, ever subject myself voluntarily to any long term study that meddled with my eating pleasure. But thankfully, some people were willing so the study commenced.

The study started with a 12 week control period where subjects were fed the calorific amount that would either keep them at their ideal weight or take them to it if they were under or overweight. Then followed a semi- starvation period for six months where the participants diets were cut to 1560 calories per day, these calories were made up of potatoes, vegetables and bread to mimic those that were eaten in the war.

After this came a restricted rehabilitation period where the participants were divided into four groups of eight men; each group received a strictly-controlled rehabilitation diet, consisting of one of four different caloric energy levels. In each energy-level group, the men were further subdivided into subgroups receiving differing protein and vitamin supplements regimes. In this manner, the clinical staff examined various energy, protein and vitamin strategies for re-nourishing the subjects from the conditions of famine induced during the semi-starvation period. After this period the participants were able to eat what they wanted unrestricted but they were carefully recorded.

On day 1 of semi-starvation, February 12, 1945, the men sat down to a meal that included a small bowl of farina, two slices of toast, a dish of fried potatoes, a dish of jello, a small portion of jam, and a small glass of milk. When I restricted at university I would sit down to a single tray of food per day that consisted of a small bowl of bran flakes, one slice of bread with jam, a small low- fat yoghurt, three apples and a banana. I would sometimes allow myself a glass of milk and I did drink milk in tea throughout the day. I would say that I was more restrictive than this study with my daily intake, so this study is quite similar to what I put myself through in the restriction phase of my anorexia.

The full report of results from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was published in 1950 in a two-volume report called The Biology of Human Starvation (University of Minnesota Press). This huge 50-chapter work totally breaks down the results and the physiological and psychological data collected during the study. 

Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression. I can vouch for the depressive effects of malnutrition. The fact that mine was self induced at the superficial level did not mean that I did not suffer the depressive elements that came with food restriction. In this study, which was designed to mimic the conditions of war, the participants were volunteers so arguably this was also self- induced semi- starvation and unlike the conditions that one would be in during war. I would imagine that semi- starvation without the self motivation or promise of financial reimbursement would induce even greater depression.

I was interested to read a more in depth report of the relationships that the men held with one another and how they treated each other as they got  more malnourished, mainly because I remember being so horrible to my family when I was anorexic! Carlyle Frederick was one of the original participants and he is quoted to have  remembered feeling irritable and “… noticing what’s wrong with everybody else, even your best friend. Their idiosyncrasies became great big deals … little things that wouldn’t bother me before or after would really make me upset.”

I often felt so very annoyed with the habits of those in my family and of my friends and I know that this irritability was influential in my removing myself from social situations.

Another participant, Marshall Sutton noted, “… we were impatient waiting in line if we had to … and we’d get disturbed with each other’s eating habits at times … I remember going to a friend at night and apologizing and saying, ‘Oh, I was terrible today, and you know, let’s go to sleep with other thoughts in our minds.’ We became, in a sense, more introverted…..”

I am an introvert, but I do not know that I was before I was anorexic. I certainly was when I was anorexic and remain happily introverted nowadays even though I am certainly not shy nor am I any longer anti-sociable.

The men reported decreased tolerance for cold temperatures, and requested additional blankets even in the middle of summer. Personally with my low bodyweight I experienced extreme and relentless coldness, I could never seem to get warm. Happily now I an back to a healthy weight I do not feel the cold like I used to.  The reports in the Minnesota study show  extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally and I have no idea about the conditions that this happened in as to garner an opinion on that one way or the other).

Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. This sounds similar to my own obsession about watching cook shows and reading cook books.

Food became an obsession for the participants. One participant, Robert Willoughby remembered the strange and interesting processes the men developed for eating the little food that was provided: “… eating became a ritual … Some people diluted their food with water to make it seem like more. Others would put each little bite and hold it in their mouth a long time to savor it. So eating took a long time.”

Carlyle Frederick was one of several men who collected cookbooks and recipes just like I did; he reported owning nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over. Harold Blickenstaff recalled the frustration of constantly thinking about food:
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.

I loved reading that quote. I cannot empathizes strongly enough the relief that I have found being free from the mental component of anorexia, the constant obsessing about food and the relentless meal planning, exercise planning etc. It is wonderful to see someone in this experiment, someone so different from myself, experiencing something so similar to what I did.

Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation.The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity.  I find this interesting as despite my malnutrition and insomnia at university, I still achieved a 2:1 and got all my coursework done. There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest), reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate. I wonder why this experiment only used men as I wish it had included women as I would have been very interested to see the effects on female subjects 

However controversial this experiment sounds, the outcome was very valuable; The understanding that starvation dramatically alters personality and that nutrition directly and predictably affects mind as well as body is one of the legacies of the experiment and is relevant to eating disorders, anorexia and any person that restricts their nutritional intake in order to attempt to lose weight.

Personally I was surprised at how the participants experienced such similar psychological components to their malnutrition as I did to mine even through the situations were so different.starvation-study-refeeding

The major difference here in implications to re-feeding is that with anorexia the subject will not be a willing participant to the re-feeding process, the psychological effects here are far more in depth than in this Minnesota Study of voluntary semi- starvation. It is however useful to isolate the starvation induced effects. For example, I use to think that cookbook obsession was a symptom of eating disorder and anorexia, which this study I can see that it is more an effect of malnutrition.  The more that we can learn about the behavioral aspects of malnutrition the more we can separate them from the psychological effects that are due to anorexia.

Key Points

1. Ironically, malnutrition makes a person not want to gain weight. The catch-22 is that once the person gains some weight, their brain starts functioning properly again and they then often are happy about gaining weight. A person with Anorexia who is underweight is not going to willingly want to gain weight to start with.

2. A starving person is often resistant to gaining weight and therefore must be pushed to do so.

3. All participants in this study overshot their pre-study weight by 10 percent once they started to gain weight. They all returned naturally to their pre-study weight within two years. In eating disorder recovery overshooting the pre-eating disorder weight is required in order to make a full and long-term recovery.

 

 

Please follow and like me :):

About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

3 thoughts on “Study Review; Minnesota Starvation Experiment