the impact of starvation -- 3/29/23

Today's selection -- from This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig. Observations on the impact of starvation from a 1944 study:
"A fascinating, though ethically dubious study on the psychological effects of starvation was carried out at the University of Minnesota in 1944, led by American physiologist Ancel Keys. The study recruited thirty-six young men, chosen for their high levels of physical and psychological health, as well as commitment to the objectives the experiment. The subjects were conscientious objectors, who volunteered as an alternative to military service in the Second World War.

"For the first three months of the experiment, the volunteers ate normally, while their behaviour, personality and eating patterns were carefully monitored. During the next six months, the men were only allowed half of their former food intake and had to stay active, so lost about 25 per cent of their former weight. The six months of going hungry were followed by three months of recovery, when the men could eat normally again. Although individual responses varied greatly, most experienced big physical, psychological and social changes, which usually persisted even when they were in the re-feeding stage and beyond.

"The volunteers developed a deep interest in food. While this is not surprising, this preoccupation often manifested itself in strange ways. Concentration lapsed as the men couldn't stop thinking about food. When they were talking, food became the main topic. Meals could be dragged out for hours, while others wolfed their food as fast as possible. The favourite reading matter became cookbooks, menus and articles on farming. Top entertainment was watching others eat. Some men began to collect food-related items that they couldn't use, such as coffee pots, ladles, spoons and pans. This progressed to hoarding useless non-food items, including old books and clothes they couldn't wear. Tea, coffee and chewing gum use rocketed, to the point where coffee had to be limited to nine cups a day, and gum to two packs a day.

"During the three-month refeeding phase, most men went on massive binges, consuming a staggering 8-10,000 calories per day (triple normal). Many made themselves ill through overeating; others ate as much as possible, but still felt hungry even after a 5,000-calorie meal. Nearly all settled back to normal eating habits after a few months, however.

"Starvation often caused emotional distress, including depression, occasional elation, anger, intolerance, anxiety, apathy and psychosis. One even chopped off two of his own fingers. This was despite the men being selected for their sound physical and mental condition at the start of the programme. Men began to avoid social contact, particularly with women, becoming progressively more withdrawn and isolated. They lost their sense of humour, of comradeship, their interest in sex and felt socially inadequate. One man said, 

I am one of about three or four who still go out with girls. I fell in love with a girl during the control period, but I see her only occasionally now. It's almost too much trouble to see her even when she visits me in the lab. It requires effort to hold her hand. Entertainment must be tame. If we see a show, the most interesting part of it is contained in scenes where people are eating.

"They lost energy, concentration, alertness, comprehension and judgement, though not overall intelligence, as well as showing the physical symptoms described above.

The study shows how humans when starved devote more and more resources to food. Things normally of major interest to young men, like socialising, particularly with women, are put aside in favour of an overwhelming obsession with food. Our ancestors undoubtedly went through many episodes of famine, and we are the descendants of those who were successful in surviving. These physical and mental changes are therefore likely to have evolved as necessary measures to get through times when food runs short, until it becomes available once more.

"The Minnesota study was conducted in a safe environment. If subjects became a real danger to themselves or others, they could be taken out of the programme (though admittedly sometimes short of the correct number of fingers). In real famines complete breakdown of society often occurred. The intense stress of famine can bring out extremes in behaviour, often for the worst. Everything is put aside in the interests of survival. People lose shame and compassion for others; crime rockets, particularly theft of food or anything that can be quickly sold or exchanged for something to eat. In societies with slavery, slaves might be 'set free' when their masters did not want the responsibility of feeding them, or simply killed. In desperation, parents might sell their children into slavery or try to get themselves enslaved. Women turn to prostitution, as their bodies are all they have left to sell, though the demand for sex from starving men disappears. Suicides and child abandonment increase. The elderly and young children die first. Desperate people migrate from rural areas to cities, or to lands thought to have food."



Andrew Doig


This Mortal Coil: A History of Death


Bloomsbury Publishing


Copyright Andrew Doig 2022


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment