What a Starvation Study From the 1940s Reveals About the Awfulness of Dieting

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Photo: Wallace Kirkland/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

As World War II ended, reports of starved refugees and prisoners of war began filtering in. As a consequence, prominent nutrition researcher Ancel Keys was tasked with figuring out how the human body physically and emotionally reacted to food deprivation. So in November 1944, he launched a project at the University of Minnesota with 36 male volunteers who embarked on a 13-month study to figure out the effects of starvation — and what a person did when they came across food again.

The Minnesota Starvation Project, as it later became known, included volunteers who wanted to help the war effort and saw the project as a way in. The experiment kicked off with 12 weeks where men were placed on stable diets of 3,200 calories a day. Once the 12-week observation period was up, the real experiment began, with participants slashing their calorie total by half for six months.

Besides food deprivation, the days were uneventful, reports Refinery29’s Kelsey Miller. “They had basic daily work assignments, were required to walk 22 miles a week, and keep a diary,” she writes. “But aside from mealtime, there were no restrictions placed on their social lives.”

Participants pretty quickly felt drained and tired without food — normal reactions that were expected. But the power of hunger to spark anger was both fascinating and disturbing. Cafeteria lines to get food often exploded into fights, and Keys reported that participants were often irrationally annoyed at each other. From the piece:

They would coddle [the food] like a baby or handle it and look over it as they would some gold. They played with it like kids making mud pies,” wrote one subject. As the months went on, eating became an even more ritualized and often grotesque affair. Plate-licking was commonplace as the men sought out ways to extend mealtime and or feel fuller. They diluted potatoes with water, held bites in their mouths for a long time without swallowing, or labored over combining the food on their plate, “making weird and seemingly distasteful concoctions,” the researchers reported.

Also, perhaps not surprisingly, the men became singularly obsessed with food. They lost interest in romance, socializing, and friendships. In its place, the men compulsively collected recipes, plotted ways to steal food, and took up smoking or incessant gum chewing to ignore gnawing hunger pains.

But the most surprising parts of the experiment were at the end. You’d think that reintroducing food to starving humans would lead them to just gobble it up with nary a thought, but if anything, the participants’ food obsession intensified. They kept their plate-licking habits up, got more emotionally irritable, and became pretty aggressive. They couldn’t stomach food well and went on violent bingeing motions that often ended up in hospitalizations.

Sure, this was a bizarre experiment that we can brush off as being a remnant of the World War II era that would probably never happen again today. But there’s something we can learn here about modern dieting: how starvation affects the mind and body, and how people’s reactions to food deprivation — whether it be purposeful or as a consequence of war — can transform their very characters. As Miller observes:

After all, these men were not starved to the brink of death, but fed approximately 1,600 calories a day. Jenny Craig, for example, prescribes meal plans as low as 1,200. As we head deeper into diet and “bikini body” season, a story like this becomes even more harrowing in the light of our culture-wide practice of calorie counting. During this experiment, there was no underlying source or motivation for deprivation. Deprivation itself drove these men to “the threshold of insanity.”

Makes dieting seem way less appealing, for sure.