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What We Can Learn From the Minnesota Starvation Experiment

This experiment makes it clear how substantial malnourishment effects can be.

Key points

  • Reduced food intake has a strong impact on cognition, emotion, and behavior. 
  • The recovery period from starvation puts people at greater risk for mental health problems than they were when they were starving. 
  • It is vital to provide additional support in the early recovery period from starvation to avoid relapse.
 freestock/Unsplash
Source: freestock/Unsplash

I find myself explaining the Minnesota Starvation Experiment repeatedly to clients because it makes it so clear how strong the effects of malnourishment can be.

In the 60s, a group of scientists studied how starvation would affect the American population in case there was ever a food supply issue or food shortage problem. They recruited healthy male volunteers. Pay attention to this part: they screened out anybody who had previous mental health issues or problems with food.

They put the subjects on a restricted diet of 1570 calories per day. I usually don’t like to use numbers in my blogs because they can be triggering for some people, but in this case, it’s essential to acknowledge that we are not talking about a few grains of rice here; we’re talking about a little less than half of the “recommended” intake for most men.

Because the subjects went absolutely crazy, they reported thinking about food all the time, not being able to concentrate on anything else. They were obsessively preoccupied with their next meal and lost interest in everything else. They became depressed, anxious, listless, and hypochondriacal. They withdrew socially and had no sexual interest. One subject–and remember these were healthy people with no history of mental health issues–tried to chop off his own fingers with an axe. He reported being “unsure” of whether or not he did it on purpose.

 Patrick Hendry/Unsplash
Source: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

So, reduced food intake has an overwhelmingly strong impact on cognition, emotion, and behavior. Maybe you could have told me that. But there’s another important takeaway from the starvation study, too–by far, the worst mental health the volunteers exhibited was when they were in recovery from the starvation.

The study proceeded in phases. During the first phase, the control period, the men were allowed to eat fairly normally. The second phase, the semi-starvation period, lasted for six months. The subjects were then rehabilitated slowly in two phases, first “restricted rehabilitation” in which the subjects were slowly given increasing amounts of food in a system fairly analogous to a meal plan, and then “restricted rehabilitation” in which they were able to eat however they pleased but their intake was monitored.

 Creedi Zhong/Unsplash
Source: Creedi Zhong/Unsplash

The worst mental health issues by far were reported during the “Restricted Rehabilitation” phase. It was during this period that one of the subjects got all choppy-choppy with his digits. It’s likely that the body avoided having strong feelings as a way to conserve energy during the starvation period and that when it has enough intake, they all come rushing back.

What this means is, when someone is beginning recovery from anorexia, they are at even more risk for mental health problems than they were when they were starving. This finding is counterintuitive and significant; many insurance companies pull financial support for treatment. The second eating is under control. Based upon the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, though, we can see that that is the moment when clients are most likely to suffer. Even from a dollars and cents perspective (which, I assure you, is the one that insurance companies take), it is vital to provide additional support in the early recovery period to avoid relapse (and, from the insurance company’s perspective, the costs associated with it).

Hopefully, it also provides you with an extra dose of compassion if you have a loved one who has begun eating normally but has not yet begun acting that way. From a mental health perspective, the effects of starvation are still quite profound–often even worsened - after a person has begun eating “normally.” Understanding this can hopefully help you to meet your loved one with more understanding and compassion,

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