The 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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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Speaking of fat performers, I’ll be doing a stand-up comedy set as a guest performer at the FATCH – the Fat Sketch Comedy Group’s New Year, Same You show on January 10th at 9pm at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on Sunset in Los Angeles. Tickets and info can be found here (Accessibility info: there is a fat-friendly bench in the front, the rest of the seating is stadium theater seats with arms up at least one step. The venue is wheelchair accessible, but there is limited space for wheelchairs.)
In case you missed it, my adorable dog and I have a poem to help you resolve (for the first time, or again) to ditch diets. I’m having fun doing videos like this so there will definitely be more – if you want to make sure not to miss future videos, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel!
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