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An Argument for Recovery—The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

By Lynne Martin, RD
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2009 Volume 7, Number 3
©2009 Gürze Books

As a clinical dietician working with patients with eating disorders, I am aware that despite having every intention to disengage from restrictive dieting, bingeing, vomiting or other disordered behaviors, many find themselves unable to stop. This inability to take back control from the eating disorder becomes more and more troubling for the sufferer with devastating effects on medical, psychological, social, and occupational/educational functioning.

One lesson I offer my patients which appears to have tremendous therapeutic value is understanding the impact that restrictive eating has on the body and mind. This concept helps them realize that their body’s state of starvation has a variety of consequences that are actually connected to their eating disorder, which both lessens their shame and increases their motivation to change.

To illustrate this idea, I describe “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment,” which is a frequently cited, landmark study conducted on a sample of men in the 1940’s by a scientist named Ancel Keys. The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the physical and psychological impact of starvation among soldiers returning from war.

The sample of men who participated were conscientious objectors with no prior history of depression, anxiety, food, or body image issues. However, after experiencing a period of months of extremely restrictive eating (i.e., semi-starvation), they began to demonstrate side effects similar to those experienced by individuals struggling with eating disorders, including preoccupation with food, inability to concentrate, low energy and motivation, severe depression, irritability, and body dissatisfaction. One subject suffered such severe psychological distress from semi-starvation that he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. Another admitted to stealing food and eating large numbers of raw rutabagas, huge amounts of gum, and eating scraps of food found in garbage cans.

Patients realize that their bingeing
might be the result of restrictive eating,
which releases feelings of shame.

Following the semi-starvation phase of the study, several months of rehabilitation (i.e., re-feeding) occurred. Especially during the beginning of this rehabilitation phase, many of the men reported episodes of binge eating. That is, once these men had access to food again, they could not satisfy their intense hunger and would experience episodes of uncontrolled eating. Binge-eating and food preoccupation continued to be present for up to five months, but ultimately did resolve along with the other associated symptoms.

As disturbing as this study is, its findings often provide both relief and motivation to my patients. First and foremost, they begin to see that starving the body has an effect on the mind as well as the body, resulting in symptoms such as a preoccupation with body image, depression, and even feelings of apathy. This helps motivate them to eat regular, healthful meals and snacks throughout the day to lift their mood, give them more energy to pursue their dreams, and feel more satisfied in their lives. They also realize that their bingeing might be the result of restrictive eating and not their lack of self-control or willpower, which releases feelings of shame. Knowing all this has proven to be a very strong argument for recovery.

About the Author

Lynne Martin, RD is a clinical dietician at New Dawn Eating Disorders Recovery Center. She integrates cognitive behavioral therapy with nutritional counseling in both individual and group settings. She utilizes a non-dieting approach, helping her patients achieve healthy lifestyles at any size.


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