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