The Minnesota Starvation Experiment Was Less Strict Than Modern Diets

Diets are DangerousThe Minnesota Starvation Experiment began in 1944 as a response to WWII and a way to generate information around how to help people recover from starvation and famine. It was a small study with a limited sample of 36 cis men (out of 400 who applied) who volunteered, each a conscientious objector who expressed his desire to make a contribution to the war effort, as well as a strong belief in nonviolence. (The call for participants they answered asked  “Will You Starve That They Be Better Fed?”)

Content Note – this post contains information including calorie counts, weight loss and other information that may be triggering, especially for those dealing with eating disorders.

The Experiment

After a 3-month phase of what was considered “normal eating” (3,200 calories/day) the six month semi-starvation period began. This stage included

  • Eating a predominantly vegetarian diet with 1/2 of their previous caloric intake (approximately 1,570 calories a day)
  • Walk 22 miles per week
  • Work 15 hours each week in a lab
  • Spend 25 hours each week on educational activities
  • Goal – losing about 2.5lbs per week

The physiological and psychological effects were significant. The participants experienced food obsession (including dreams, fantasies, staying up all night reading cookbooks and menus, as well as talking incessantly about food.) They developed rituals around food – diluting it with water, holding it in their mouths for extended periods of time without swallowing, taking hours to eat meals that had previously taken minutes, licking their plates and more.)

They smuggled food, hoarded kitchen implements, and chewed huge amounts of gum  (up to 40 packs a day) They experienced decreased stamina, strength, heart rate, and sex drives. They had edema (swelling, possibly due to drinking so much water to try to fill their stomachs,) and dizziness. They reported fatigue, irritability, depression, and decreased interest in social contact and personal hygiene. They complained of feeling “old” and constantly tired.

The semi-starvation phase was followed by the refeeding phase, starting with restricted rehabilitation (3 months of 2,000-3,200 calories a day) and then unrestricted rehabilitation (8 weeks of unlimited calories.)

While physical recovery started once enough food was given (they eventually determined that they needed 4,000 calories a day to recover,) psychologically the men’s symptoms worsened before they improved. Two experienced psychosis, one amputated three of his fingers while chopping wood, saying “I admit to being crazy mixed up at the time. I am not ready to say I did it on purpose. I am not ready to say I didn’t.” Within three months of refeeding the subjects had stabilized psychologically in most cases, but still had troubled relationships with food including many eating “more or less continuously” and some eating to the point of sickness.

Comparison to Modern Intentional Weight Loss Attempts

Let’s start here: Intentional weight loss is an attempt at manipulating food and exercise in order to give your body less sustenance than it needs,  in the hopes that it will consume itself and become smaller.

Caloric Intake:

The Starvation Study participants got 1,570 calories a day during “semi-starvation.” Even considering the differences that diets suggest for cis men and cis women (blatantly ignoring trans and nonbinary people) plenty of modern diets are based on even fewer calories. Noom is suggesting as few as 1,100 calories to people, Jenny Craig is about 1,200, Nutrisystem is 1,500 for cis men and 1,200 for cis women, Medifast is 800-1,000, there’s the diet where you eat 500 calories a day and get injections made from the urine of pregnant horses.

A common argument here is that the men didn’t start out fat so their experiences don’t apply to fat people dieting, but there are plenty of fat people who had similar experiences while dieting, and no reason to believe that those who live in fat bodies aren’t subject to the same reactions to starvation. Not to mention that, rather than just six months with a very specific end date like the experiment participants, fat people are expected to follow these diets for years (and, given the massive failure rate of diets, often on and off for the rest of our lives) with no refeeding period. (And that’s not even addressing the idea that it’s perfectly safe to just amputate most of your stomach in an effort to force you to restrict your caloric intake under 1,000 kcal/day for the rest of your life.)

Lifestyle

If we combine the 15 hours of lab work and 25 hours of educational activities, they are working 40 hours a week, an amount that can be far less than what many are expected to do on fewer calories.

Exercise

Another argument is that they had to walk 22 miles a week. Now, that might seem like a lot, but let’s talk about that whole “10,000 steps a day” thing. By rough estimates, 10,000  is about 5 miles, so currently, it is extremely common to recommend that people walk 35 miles a week. If we look at is in terms of activity time, 22 miles of walking is about 5.5-7 hours per week and many diets recommend more activity than that.

Results

The results will be familiar to those who have had the most common experiences of intentional weight loss attempts:

All of the men regained more than what they lost, (since they were allowed to stop dieting completely they eventually leveled out.)

Three subjects weren’t able to maintain the diet for even 6 months and their results were excluded. (One of the men described feeling “high” after eating extra food, stopping at 17 soda shops on the way home, then falling into despair because of his failure.)

One subject’s results were excluded because, despite semi-starvation, he failed to lose “enough” weight.

Despite being so thin that their bones were visible, many of the men did not perceive themselves as too thin, instead they began to think that everyone else looked fat.

Sixty years later the men discussed the fact that for years they had a recurring fear that food would be taken away.

In describing the experiment, the study authors wrote: “They were men who postponed their living, while they endured the awful present.”

That’s how they described eating more calories and doing less exercise than most modern diets suggest. Dieting isn’t just almost completely ineffectual, it can be dangerous – leading to negative psychological effects, and disturbed relationships with food including eating disorders. We don’t have to do this.  There is a better way

For a great overview of the Minnesota Starvation study check out this post from counseling student and activist Shira Cutler.

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13 thoughts on “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment Was Less Strict Than Modern Diets

  1. I starved myself for 7 years, 1,000 calories a day. I remember sitting with a friend and eating her entire pack of Oreos without realizing it. I obsessed about cooking food. I regained all my weight and more. 30 years later, my weight has yet to stabilize. Throw in the information we are learning about how a mother’s starving can affect her daughter and the eggs that will be her grandchildren and we have a lot of fallout from starvation

  2. Our overall culture does not admit that one must, actually, eat to live. It does not understand that the number of calories endorsed by the con artists of the diet industry are fewer than those a person needs to live. The reality of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment gets lost in the TLDR section of people’s minds.

    On December 23, there was an article in the New York Times (my hometown paper), by Jane Brody, concerning Inflammation (Tackling Inflammation to Fight Age-Related Ailments). There were the usual recommendations, including “lose weight”. Of course. Always. Brody is a reliable pro-weight-loss writer, but she is less odious than others who write for the Times.

    What didn’t feature prominently in the article itself was severe caloric restriction. Never fear! Our always-odious, stalwart, fat-hating commentariat made sure to plonk it all in there. “Honeybee” said:

    “Halve your calories and you will naturally crave wholesome foods.
    You’ll feel better. You’ll sleep better.
    You can easily survive on 1000 calories a day; you can thrive on 1200 as a female.”

    This is irresponsible, and it beggars belief. She went on to talk about how her doctors (internist and cardiologist) are in their 70’s, and eat only 1,500 calories per day, are thin, and still working. One eats only a half a sandwich for lunch. As I read it, I thought about how I would prefer not to have a physician be hungry and inattentive if they were treating me (combine that with fatphobia, and I could come out with a very bad result).

    My reply to their post mentioned the Minnesota starvation experiment, and pointed out how the number of calories was greater than that consumed by most dieters. I also noted that we have a visual preference (as a society) for thinness, and that people will go beyond recommendations (if 1000 calories a day is good, 800 must be better)… Anorexia kills.

    I wish I could say that many others responded to correct Honeybee. Nope. Several wrote in support of her comment, and built on it. Only one other person (Concerned Citizen) responded to my reply, and addressed Honeybee’s problematic comment. They were, however, quite on point:

    “…most fanatics like Honeybee UNDEREAT to hit their extreme diet controls — and of course, they LOVE being hungry and feel empowered to be much thinner than others. It’s a HUGE status thing in our culture, to be very very thin. (But no, it does not mean you are actually “healthy”.)”

    And there it is, right there. It is one-upsmanship on the starvation front. This is the philosophy in a nutshell: “I’m better than you because I eat less than you”.

    Facts just don’t seem to matter in this worldview.

    1. “You can easily survive on 1000 calories a day; you can thrive on 1200 as a female.”

      Those females, wearing clothes and eating more than 1200 calories per day. It’s a slippery slope, I tell you.

  3. Thank you for this write-up, and for the link to the presentation. The Minnesota Starvation experiment is horrifically fascinating. I didn’t know some of these details about it; this is the first I’d heard they had to omit a participant’s results because he couldn’t lose the weight they wanted, even in those extreme circumstances, for instance.

  4. Thank you for this! I don’t generally comment, but I shared Shira Cutler’s post on Facebook and got a comment that since the researcher (Ansel Keys) later in life cherry picked research to get the results he wanted, the commenter would take these results with a large grain of salt. I didn’t know how to respond to this, more than to say that there seems to be very little criticism of this study by other researchers. Any ideas or thoughts? It’s hard to stand up for something when you feel you know too little.

    1. I think I would respond by saying that this research was well-documented and has been reviewed many times since its original inception. But that, however ill-advised or unsupported their choices, they can believe whatever they wish, but I will take their opinion with a grain of salt until they have some proof of their accusations.

    2. I totally agree with Ragen on this.

      There is some very valid criticism of Ancel Keys’ later work on what would become known as the Mediterranean diet. Specifically, his first test bed of subjects were Greek men. The problem was that he did his study during Lent. The Greek Orthodox are very hard-core in their Lenten observance, so their diet at the time didn’t reflect their diet the rest of the year. This colored the discussion, and had a profound influence in how people saw fat as a nutrient.

      We know all of this because his results and methodology are there for everyone to see and comment upon. This is not hidden information, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Minnesota Starvation Experiments. Again, the documentation is available, the methodology was solid, and even Ancel Keys was horrified at what happened to the men. All of this was in service of re-feeding a population ravaged and starved by the War.

      There is a lot of information on Keys’ work in the book “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” by Nina Teicholz. It is well-researched. Most importantly, it shows the problems that happen when scientific hypotheses are translated (without the needed understanding) into public policy.

      From my discussions with others about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (MSE), I find a few of “buckets” in which I can place people.

      1) Belief, but struggling to find a way to reconcile their current beliefs (particularly when they hear the number of calories). For instance, alleging that the food the subjects ate was “less processed” or something. Not sure how that works but… Hey.

      2) Disbelief or negation: I had one person reply (to a different comment), that the MSE was about “real” starvation — no definition offered. That’s just cancellation or dismissal.

      3) Not even addressing the issue: The person just moves on to something something processed food sugar something something oop ack.

      4) “But there were no fat people back then!” – contrary to all documentary evidence. Also not relevant.

      5) Surprise, but eager to learn more (not too many people in this bucket, alas)

      The MSE results (as documented, and as reported by the test subjects themselves) stand on their own as solid science, and are fit to purpose. That Keys got led down the garden path later in life is not relevant to the discussion of the MSE.

  5. They hate us. They like hating us. They think EVERYONE likes to hate us, They NEED to think EVERYONE hates us. They want us to die and be grateful for it. If there is room to grow a brain, do so, help those who want help, if they hate like breathing, move along, do not get sucked into the blackhole of misery these people need to create to exist.

  6. What hit me most is the basic diet of the participants. 3200 calories a day. Who recommends to eat that much today? And they were not miners or physical workers. How they were not fat on the diet?! How it was even possible? ( Of course I am sarcastic)

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