Eating disorders cause physiological changes to the brain, and research has shown the effects of losing weight in a short space of time. In my MHFA plenary sessions, I introduce the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and discuss its relevance in understanding eating disorders, particularly anorexia. The study was handed to me in paper-format when I was an outpatient at an ED clinic in my early 20s, and as someone who likes to try and understand the why of things, I found this an inspiring and eye-opening account of what my brain and body was going through. The study highlights that even previously healthy individuals can fall into a spiral of eating disordered behaviours, as the brain literally changes during a period of starvation. What follows are changes across all areas of a person’s life: their emotions, their behaviours, their social life, their physical health. Most notably, it provides evidence to support the idea that eating disorders are not about willpower, but are a form of addiction that takes a lot of hard work to overcome.
I encourage anyone with an interest in anorexia to read this and please do share with friends, families, professionals, and people you know struggling with food.
A summary of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment
In 1944, 36 healthy young men from the USA – conscientious objectors who didn’t want to fight on the front line but wanted to play their part in supporting their country in WWII – volunteered to participate in a one-year experiment on the psychological and physiological effects of starvation. The researchers wanted to know how to help people (in this case, soldiers) recovering from the effects of starvation, something which was becoming increasingly problematic during WWII. They also sought to uncover the physical and psychological effects of semi-starvation.
The study, led by nutritionist Ancel Keys, required participants to lose 25% of their normal weight. For the first three months, participants ate 3200 calories a day. Then, for the next six months, participants’ diets were strictly controlled to around 1500 calories a day.
During this time, the men were required to work on various tasks in the lab (e.g., housekeeping or admin tasks), walk or run 22 miles per week and could participate in a variety of educational activities (e.g., classes and activities at the University of Minnesota). They were expected to use around 3,000 calories per day whilst consuming only 1,500 calories per day. Although they were required to stay on-site throughout the experiment, they were allowed spend their evenings as they wished, and could go for walks around the grounds or to the cinema.
After the semi-starvation period, a 20-week rehabilitation phase began.
Effects of starvation
During the semi-starvation phase the changes were dramatic. There were significant decreases in their strength, stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive. The psychological effects were significant as well, with hunger making the men obsessed with food. They would dream and fantasise about food, as well as reading and talking about food all the time. Emotionally, the men reported fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy. 
As the study continued, ritualistic behaviour kicked in and the men started to exhibit some strange habits with food. This included plate-licking and other strategies to make their meals last longer, or feel fuller – from diluting potatoes with water to holding bites in their mouths for a long time without swallowing. Some men spent a lot of time combining the food on their plate, “making weird and seemingly distasteful concoctions,” the researchers reported. 
Food became the sole source of fascination and motivation, with the men finding themselves distracted by constant daydreams of food Many men began obsessively collecting recipes, with one participant writing that he “stayed up until 5 a.m. last night studying cookbooks”. Some attempted to satisfy their cravings by purchasing or stealing food; one man began stealing cups from coffee shops. They drank a lot of water, seeking fullness. Some took up smoking to stave off hunger and others chewed up to 30 packs of gum a day until the laboratory banned it. 
With food becoming a preoccupation in the men’s lives, other aspects became background noise. In particular, socialising and romantic relationships became of little interest. At parties, the subjects found conversation both difficult and pointless. They all preferred a solitary trip to the movies, adding that, while they could recognise comedy, they never felt compelled to laugh anymore. “In a store, when shopping, they were easily pushed around by the crowd,” the research team reported. “Their usual reaction was resignation.” 
Eventually, most men returned to normal but it took several months and sometimes years before some men were psychologically well and had a good relationship with food.
Takeaway messages for friends, family and acquaintances of anorexia sufferers
- During prolonged starvation (whether it is voluntary or involuntary) a person is impacted emotionally and physically in extreme ways.
- Prolonged starvation can impact people who weren’t previously affected by disordered eating nor at a healthy weight. Restrictive eating and deprivation can lead to an obsession with food due to the physiological changes taking place in the brain.
- Although it can be frustrating to see someone stop doing the activities they previously enjoyed, or finding themselves become more isolated, it’s important to remember that any human, in starvation mode, loses energy to pursue their normal daily routine.
- Starvation’s effects are gender neutral. Even though the 1945 study recruited male participants, the characteristics and symptoms of starvation are identical to those experienced by women in similar circumstances.
How this study can help us to maintain compassion
This study helps us to remember that people in the grips of anorexia are experiencing the effects of starvation. Their brain, physical health and emotions are significantly changed by their diet of deprivation.
Although it can feel frustrating that someone with anorexia is “choosing” to starve themselves, it’s important to remember that the disease is directing their course of behaviour in many ways. Eating disorders are complex physical, psychological and environmental diseases complex that people do not choose to have; without always realising it, a person can fall into the grips of anorexia, often without intending to do so.
Acceptance is an important first step in the recovery journey, and by knowing your behaviour is influenced by the changes in your brain (i.e., like any habit or addiction), it can help you to feel more compassion towards yourself. Eating disorders are NOT a character flaw or lack (or too much) willpower. They are insidious monsters in the brain; but with time, help and hope, it can get better.
Cover image: Source.