The Dutch Hunger Winter

The best data that we have on the effects of starvation during pregnancy came about as the result of a war crime. In retaliation for a railroad strike that undermined the German military’s ability to resist the advancing Allied forces, the Germans cut off food supplies to the still-occupied western part of the Netherlands in October of 1944. Thus began a famine that lasted until May of 1945. This appalling, criminal starvation of a civilian population caused nearly 20,000 excess deaths, mainly in elderly men. It also had terrible effects on the survivors, including pregnant women and their babies. The effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter on survivors are still being studied today.

From a scientific standpoint, the data from the Dutch Hunger Winter are particularly valuable. Here was a population that went from being well-fed to being badly starved and then went back to being well-fed. The precise dates of the food deprivation were known and could be correlated with birth records. After the war, scientists studied families that had been exposed to the famine. They paid particular attention to people who had been in their mother’s womb during the famine.

The main thing that we’ve learned from the Dutch Hunger Winter is that starvation is bad, especially for pregnant women. The next time you hear of someone advocating some policy that would end up starving a civilian population, do whatever you can to prevent or stop it.

The other valuable lesson learned from the Dutch Hunger Winter was the cause of celiac disease. When wheat became scarce and people had to subsist on other foods, such as tulip bulbs, children with celiac disease improved dramatically. Currently, a diet that is free of wheat, rye, and barley is the standard way to manage celiac disease.

Movie star Audrey Hepburn, who survived the Dutch Hunger Winter, served as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from 1988 to the end of her life.

Photo by ElizaPeyton

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