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