Research that Changed Research: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

by Elaine

Have you ever been so hungry that you felt like you were starving? Even though you ate just a few hours ago, but it felt like it has been days since your last meal? And you probably experience the physical as well as psychological effects of hunger such as stomach cramps and grumpiness. Well, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment took hunger to a whole new level, but not without a good cause, of course!

In hopes to produce a dissertation on human starvation in laboratory stimulation of famine and to investigate different methods of treatment for famine victims at the end of World War II, the clinical study took twelve months to complete. With the participation of thirty-six white male volunteers between the ages of 22 to 33 years old, the study had four phases: Control Period (12 weeks), Semi-Starvation Period (24 weeks), Restricted Rehabilitation Period (12 weeks), and Unrestricted Rehabilitation Period (8 weeks). During the Semi-Starvation Period, the participants were given two meals a day that was adjusted to produce a total loss of about 25% over the course of 24 weeks. The participants were also assigned to perform physical tasks and were expected to walk 22 miles per week. Participants kept journals to record personal psychological effects of prolonged famine-like starvation.

The most striking effect of semi-starvation reported by the participants was not the physical discomfort, but the frustration of constantly thinking about food. The following is a passage from the Original Article:

“Food became an obsession for the participants. Robert Willoughby remembered the often complex processes the men developed for eating the little food that was provided: “. . . eating became a ritual . . . Some people diluted their food with water to make it seem like more. Others would put each little bite and hold it in their mouth a long time to savor it. So eating took a long time.” Carlyle Frederick was one of several men who collected cookbooks and recipes; he reported owning nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over.”

Dietary restriction is a big part of our focus in the DiSH lab, and the Minnesota Starvation Experiment showed the effects that dietary restriction has on attitudes and behaviors related to food and eating. Results from the experiment showed obsessive thoughts about food and eating, in which participants had difficulty concentrating on ‘normal’ things. Changes in eating behaviors such as licking of plates and poor table manners persisted after the experiment. In more severe cases, some of the participants had a hard time following their diets and experienced episodes of binge eating. On participant even mutilated his own hand. Results like these help the DiSH Lab examine the role that diet has on an individual and its influence on health.


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