The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Does Deliberate Starvation Cause Eating Disorders?

Dur­ing World War II, nutri­tion researcher Ancel Keys (the inven­tor of the “K ration”) real­ized that large num­bers of civil­ians would suf­fer from star­va­tion dur­ing the war. To study the effects of star­va­tion and deter­mine the best meth­ods for reha­bil­i­ta­tion of the vic­tims of star­va­tion, he need­ed a pop­u­la­tion of starv­ing peo­ple. Since none were avail­able local­ly, he worked with the gov­ern­ment to recruit a group of con­sci­en­tious objec­tors will­ing to starve them­selves. The study, con­duct­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, came to be known as the Min­neso­ta Star­va­tion Exper­i­ment. Ear­ly results from this exper­i­ment were wide­ly used by aid work­ers in the months after the guns fell silent, and an enor­mous two-vol­ume text­book titled The Biol­o­gy of Human Star­va­tion was pub­lished by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press in 1950.

Such an exper­i­ment could nev­er be repeat­ed today, because it would be for­bid­den by the rules put in place after the hor­rors of Nazi exper­i­men­ta­tion in the con­cen­tra­tion camps were revealed. Yet many of the vol­un­teers report­ed years lat­er that par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Min­neso­ta Star­va­tion Exper­i­ment was one of the most impor­tant and most mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences of their lives.

Among the most sur­pris­ing and dis­turb­ing find­ings of the Min­neso­ta Star­va­tion Exper­i­ment were the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of star­va­tion. The men in the study had been sub­ject­ed to exten­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal test­ing before their peri­od of star­va­tion began. At the begin­ning of the study, they were men­tal­ly healthy, with no his­to­ry of depres­sion, eat­ing dis­or­ders, or prob­lems with body image. Yet dur­ing the exper­i­ment, many of the men exhib­it­ed prob­lems that rec­og­niz­able today as fea­tures of anorex­ia and bulim­ia. This pos­es a dis­turb­ing ques­tion: Are anorex­ia and bulim­ia and so on trig­gered by the con­ven­tion­al “por­tion con­trol” strat­e­gy for weight loss?

Pho­to by anar­chosyn

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