The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

You just never know what will tip your thinking against dieting. After a decade of completely reckless calorie restriction, here’s what did it for me.

I first read about this study in Intuitive Eating and couldn’t believe the similarities I was seeing to my own life. My head was exploding with questions. Calorie restriction can make you feel and behave like a crazy person? Women aren’t just born this way? Men can feel obsessed with food too?  HOW HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS?

Though it was such a small study done so long ago, I found myself fascinated, and it really helped me see a new perspective of what my body might have been experiencing when I subjected it to crash dieting over the years.

Here’s how it all went down:

In 1944, a research team at the University of Minnesota led by Dr. Ancel Keys set out to study the effects of semi-starvation to aid the war effort and famine victims abroad.

They enrolled 36 men between the ages of 21 and 33 into a lengthy study. During the first three months, the men ate as usual under observation. Next, the men were fed low-calorie, low-fat diets for six months. The menu consisted of potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, dark bread, and macaroni — the sorts of staples people might subsist on in war-torn countries.

The entire thing is a pretty fascinating read, but here were just three of the moments I felt like Dr. Keys was observing ME back in my disordered days:compulsive-eating

  1. “In normal living there is an ebb and flow among the drives and impulses…In starvation, this pleasant balancing process is upset, and the hunger drive gradually dominates more and more of the person’s activities and thoughts.” [YEP. All day, every day I was thinking about past, present, or future food.]
  2. When it was time for a meal, the men might gulp it down, or savor it morsel by morsel, or lick the plate to avoid waste. They spent hours each day thinking about food, strategizing, agonizing, daydreaming. Some started smoking to reduce their appetites. Some drank too much water to help them feel full. Some chewed gum to replicate the feeling of eating. [Check, check, check, check, check…]
  3. All of the participants experienced depression, anxiety, and irritability, but there was no helping them. “Psychotherapy cannot cure psychological complaints due to physiological causes,” he wrote. [Well…damn. The answer to food insanity was, is, and always will be: food.]

Once the starvation period ended, the men’s preoccupation with food lasted for months, even though they were focused solely on gaining weight and returning to health.

Now just imagine how much worse this food anxiety would have been if they had to do the study again, say, a month later. That is exactly what your body and brain experience in the crash diet to binge to crash diet cycle, and why I will never put myself through a diet ever again.

image and quotes via


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