In 1950, Minnesota conducted a six-month starvation study on 36 young, psychologically and physically healthy men. More than 100 men volunteered for the study as an alternative to military service; the 36 selected had the highest levels of physical and psychological health, as well as the most commitment to the objectives of the experiment. Note that none of these men had any sort of unhealthy body image, preoccupation with food, or known mental disorders of any kind.
During the first 3 months of the semi-starvation experiment, the volunteers ate normally while their behavior, personality, and eating patterns were studied in detail. During the next 6 months, the men were restricted to approximately half of their former food intake and lost, on average, approximately 25% of their former weight.
One of the changes immediately observed in the volunteers was a dramatic increase in food preoccupations. The men found concentration on their usual activities increasingly difficult, because they became plagued by incessant thoughts of food and eating.
During the semi-starvation phase of the experiment, food became a principal topic of conversation, reading, and even daydreams. Rating scales revealed that the men experienced an increase in thinking about food, as well as corresponding declines in interest in sex and activity during semistarvation.
As starvation progressed, the number of men who toyed with their food dramatically increased. Those who ate in the common dining room smuggled out bits of food and consumed them on their bunks in a long-drawn-out ritual. Toward the end of starvation some of the men would dawdle for almost two hours after a meal which previously they would have consumed in a matter of minutes. Cookbooks, menus, and information bulletins on food production became intensely interesting to many of the men who previously had little or no interest in dietetics or agriculture.
In addition to cookbooks and collecting recipes, some of the men even began collecting coffeepots, hot plates, and other kitchen utensils. One man even began rummaging through garbage cans. This general tendency to hoard has been observed in starved anorexic patients and even in rats deprived of food.
The Minnesota subjects were often caught between conflicting desires to gulp their food down ravenously and consume it slowly so that the taste and odor of each morsel would be fully appreciated. Toward the end of starvation some of the men would dawdle for almost two hours over a meal which previously they would have consumed in a matter of minutes. They took much planning as to how they would handle their day’s allotment of food.
During the eighth week of starvation, one volunteer flagrantly broke the dietary rules, eating several sundaes and malted milks; he even stole some penny candies. He promptly confessed the whole episode, and became self-deprecatory. While working in a grocery store, another man suffered a complete loss of will power and ate several cookies, a sack of popcorn, and two overripe bananas before he could “regain control” of himself. He immediately suffered a severe emotional upset, with nausea, and upon returning to the laboratory he vomited. He was self-deprecatory, expressing disgust and extreme self-criticism.
Although the subjects were psychologically healthy prior to the experiment, most experienced significant emotional deterioration as a result of semistarvation. Most of the subjects experienced periods during which their emotional distress was quite severe; almost 20% experienced extreme emotional deterioration that markedly interfered with their functioning. Depression became very severe during the course of the experiment.
For most subjects, anxiety also became evident. As the experiment progressed, many of the formerly even-tempered men began biting their nails or smoking because they felt extremely nervous. Two subjects developed disturbances of “psychotic” proportions. One man became so distressed he cut off three fingers of his own hand.
As the six months of semi-starvation progressed, the volunteers exhibited many physical changes, including gastrointestinal discomfort; decreased need for sleep; dizziness; headaches; hypersensitivity to noise and light; reduced strength; poor motor control; edema (an excess of fluid causing swelling); hair loss; decreased tolerance for cold temperatures; visual disturbances and auditory disturbances and paresthesias (i.e., abnormal tingling or prickling sensations, especially in the hands or feet).
After the six-month starvation period, the subjects were placed on a gradual refeeding period. For five months after, nearly all the men still experienced extreme psychological changes.
Although originally quite gregarious, the men became progressively more withdrawn and isolated. Humor and the sense of comradeship diminished amidst growing feelings of social inadequacy. The volunteers’ social contacts with women also declined sharply during semistarvation. Those who continued to see women socially found that the relationships became strained. “It’s almost too much trouble to see her even when she visits me in the lab,” one subject states. “It requires effort to hold her hand. If we see a show, the most interesting part of it is contained in scenes where people are eating.”
The single most astounding finding of this study was that many of the symptoms once thought to be primary features of anorexia nervosa are actually symptoms of starvation itself. Your body is wired for survival and by consciously putting yourself into starvation, you are inadvertently but VERY ACTIVELY putting these same thoughts into place. None of the men fully recovered from their extreme obsession with food:
“Subject #20 stuffs himself until he is bursting at the seams, to the point of being nearly sick and still feels hungry; #120 reported that he had to discipline himself to keep from eating so much as to become ill; No. 1 ate until he was uncomfortably full; and subject #30 had so little control over the mechanics of “piling it in” that he simply had to stay away from food because he could not find a point of satiation even when he was “full to the gills.”…”I ate practically all weekend,” reported subject #26…Subject #26 would just as soon have eaten six meals instead of three.
Their bodies never got over that period of starvation. Their minds became permanently hardwired to think it was never enough, there was never enough food, they had to eat, eat, eat or they would starve to death. They were all psychologically completely healthy before the experiment.
Anorexia and Bulimia are extreme psychological diseases. Starvation itself causes these feelings even in 100% healthy people. Please, please, please do anything you can to avoid putting yourself in this mindset, and if you are already having these feelings, realize that they’re the result of starving, your body’s evolutionarily hardwired response to trying desperately to survive on so very little nutrients. It is not your fault.