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