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The Great Starvation Experiment

Posted Mar 05 2009 4:32am
I've mentioned the Minnesota Starvation Study many times on my blog. For those who may not have heard about it, a (very) brief summary: at the end of WWII, it was obvious that Europe was going to be facing famine, but no one knew the best way to refeed people. So Ancel Keys recruited a group of healthy, young conscientious objectors (all male) to undergo a period of semi-starvation so that various diets for re-feeding could be tested.

The results are fascinating: all of the men developed symptoms that today would be classified as stereotypical of those with an eating disorder. Although none of the men actually developed an eating disorder as a result of the experiment, they became obsessed with food, anxious, depressed, irritable, etc.

But in studying the results of the experiment, it's easy to forget the men who actually participated in the study. An article from the Journal of Nutrition summarized the experiment* and the experiences of the surviving participants 60 years later. One of the participants recalled:

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.

Yet despite this, virtually all of the participants expressed a willingness to do the experiment over again. They wanted to take part in the war effort and bring peace to the world, just as non-combatants. They saw it as a way to truly help the suffering.

Of course, no one realized then how relevant this would be to the field of eating disorders, but this is perhaps one of the areas where the results of the experiment are most widely used.

There's a book out about the experiment, titled The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker, that I would like to read as well.

*There are a few potentially triggering pictures in the article. Just an FYI.
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