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Mad Positivity | The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Image reposted from @thechampagnediet (artist unknown)

By Jessica Vander Zaag


Time for some science. In case anyone thought this blog was gonna be all wishy-washy feelgood talk, well that’s coming later. First we need some cold hard facts.

Back during World War II one of the greatest killers was hunger. So The University of Minnesota, unencumbered by the annoying ethics committees we have today, rounded up a bunch of conscientious objectors to study the physiologic effects of starvation. The experiment was simple; feed men normally for three months, cut their food drastically for three months, then refeed for three months, all the while testing various physical markers.


To start the men were fed a standardized diet of 3200 calories a day, then were abruptly cut to 1570 calories a day. I don’t like to use numbers, but if you’ve ever counted calories take a moment to consider that: 1500 cal a day is literally starving yourself. Pretty soon after this starvation protocol began, the men lost strength and energy, complaining that they felt constantly tired. By the end of the study, the average heart rate slowed to 35 bpm (which, speaking from experience, is about the point that a modern day ECG tech has to send you to the ER), blood volume dropped, and their hearts shrank.


But the mental changes were the most drastic. Initially the men were apathetic and lethargic, losing interest in politics, sex and romance, but becoming obsessed with food. Meals were the highlight of their day. They would go to extreme lengths to “cheat” and get more food. Some became obsessed with cookbooks and looking at pictures of food. At this point reading the paper felt like someone had peeked into my head during my most restrictive phase. I wish I was exaggerating to say that at least half my waking thoughts were devoted to food.


When it came time for the refeeding stage, the researchers tried to increase the calories in small doses, but the men complained that they didn’t feel like they were getting any more food and still felt hungry all the time. In the end it took at least 4000 calories a day for the men to recover their strength. After the study was technically over, a few men were convinced to stay for an “unrestricted” stage. These men were observed to eat an average or 5000 calories a day, sometimes up to 11,500 cal in a single day. For many months after, the men reported that no matter how much they ate they were unable to satiate their hunger.


So just think about it. What happened last time you tried to diet? Were you constantly thinking about food? Did you feel ravenously hungry for weeks even after you were done? Even if your diet had nothing to do with calories?


The pattern is simple: restriction leads to obsession leads to binging, but more on that later


Diets are just self-imposed starvation. And you deserve better.


xo jess