Towards the end of World War II, word got through that certain people in occupied territories were eating a near-starvation diet. American researchers wanted to study the effects of starvation, so they recruited volunteers – and starved them some more.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment pretty much lived up to its name. It was an early experiment in nutrition prompted by news about the conditions in Europe during World War II. The full horror of concentration camps was still to come, but word came in that people in war-torn territories were living on severely restricted diets. Everyone knew that things were going to get worse before they got better, and concerned researched wanted to find out the effects of starvation and how to rehabilitate a severely starved person. In November of 1944, at The University of Minnesota, a study began on the effects of starvation.
From a pool of 400 volunteers, 36 men were chosen. All were between 22 and 33, and all were in good health. They were told that the experiment would go through four phases. For three months, they would eat a specific number of calories, so that researchers could get them to a healthy weight and get a baseline for their diet. (They were kept active, and the diet they were given was 3,200 calories.) Once they’d gotten up to their “fighting weight,” their caloric intake was to be halved. They’d take in 1,560 calories a day, every day, and no more. They’d have a diet comparable to the food people in Europe would have available – root vegetables and starches with the occasional meat or jell-o. The goal of the diet was to make the men lose a little over two pounds a week, and twenty-five percent of their body weight in six months.
After six months, they’d go through a three-month rehabilitative phase, where they would be allowed more food. They’d be divided into many groups, with different groups given different amounts of calories, and different amounts of protein, fat, and vitamins. Finally, they’d be allowed eight weeks of eating whatever they wanted.
During this time, they were kept in dormitories on campus, given regular blood tests, endurance tests, mental tests, and many other kind of tests. They were given administrative work in the lab, and allowed to attend classes at the university. Most of all, they were watched. For the tests to be successful, the researchers had to be sure that the participants weren’t cheating.
The rehabilitative diet did not remain of general interest to subsequent generations – although it did help scientists understand that people who had been starved needed to be overfed, rather than just fed, to help them rebuild their bodies. It is the effects that retain lasting fascination for scientists and for the public. At first, the participants merely complained of hunger, of an inability to concentrate, and of poor judgment. If the men didn’t lose enough weight, their rations were reduced – meaning some got more food than others. They all ate together, watching who got what. Unsurprisingly, resentment sprang up and there were a lot of fights in the dorms. Then came extreme depression. Several members were hospitalized for psychiatric problems. Some mutilated themselves. One man amputated three fingers with a hatchet, although he said later he didn’t know whether he’d done it on purpose or was just not thinking clearly. Considering he had injured his fingers once before, letting a car fall on them, the researchers thought the new injury was at least semi-deliberate, released him from the experiment and put him in psychiatric care.
Then came weakness. When one man cheated on the diet, the researchers demanded the rest of the men go everywhere with a buddy. Years later one of the participants said he was grateful for the buddy system, since he could no longer open heavy doors by himself. The men lost their hair, became dizzy, felt cold all the time, and their muscles ached. Many dropped out of classes. Scientists noted that their resting heart rate and breath rate also fell. The starving body was trying to use up as few calories as possible. For a while, they were allowed gum. They chewed up to forty packs every day until the researchers disallowed gum chewing.
They became obsessed with what food they did have, holding it in their mouths and trying to stretch out mealtimes. On man said that what bothered him more than anything was the fact that food became the central point in his life. He no longer cared about anything but food. He watched movies for the eating scenes, and read magazines for the food ads. Another man said he had begun hating people who were able to go home and have a good dinner. Food became their curse and obsession. This was unsurprising, as a good portion of the men overshot the projected goal of a twenty-five percent loss of body weight. Many men were down to 99 or 100 pounds.
During the three-month rehabilitation period, different groups of men were supposed to receive different amounts of food. Researchers quickly scrapped that idea after the lower-calorie-diet men didn’t show signs of recovery. Some even lost weight after their calorie intake was increased. The lack of calories had caused some of the men’s legs to swell with water, and a calorie infusion allowed them to shed the excess liquid. Despite the sincere efforts of the researchers, almost no men felt recovered after just three months. On the day they were allowed to eat again, quite a few overate and got sick. One had his stomach pumped. Even getting back to their earlier weight didn’t help. They packed on the pounds well beyond that. Some said they couldn’t stop obsessively eating for a year. There was never “enough” food for them.
Today, the results of the Minnesota Starvation Study are mostly of note to people who study eating disorders. Many of the behaviors the starving men displayed, such as diluting food with water to make it look more filling, or overchewing their food to stretch out mealtimes, are also displayed by people suffering from anorexia. The men’s subsequent relentless feeding is similar to binge-eating. Although they made themselves sick physically, they couldn’t get enough food to make them feel satisfied.
When contacted years later, many of the men said the experiment was the toughest thing they had ever done, but were happy to have participated and said they would do it again. Would anyone here volunteer even once?