The Minnesota Starvation Study – Important Insights to Help Us Understand a Loved One Suffering From Anorexia?

While we understand a lot more about disordered eating these days, it is important to know the origin of modern treatment approaches from a historic perspective.

There was a famous starvation study done almost 60 years ago, which provides some excellent insight for those seeking to understand and empathize with the anorexia sufferer in their life.

doctor using stethoscope

Minnesota Starvation Study

Conscientious objectors to the war in 1945 made up an ideal base for Minnesota Starvation Study led by Ancel Keys, Ph.D., and Josef Brozek, Ph.D. From this pool of healthy, young men 36 were chosen to participate in the groundbreaking starvation study conducted at the University of Minnesota.

The study was designed to have the participants lose 25% of their normal weight over an eight-week period by the following formula: For the first three months, participants ate 3200 calories a day and were quite well-fed and comfortable.

Then, for the next six months, participants were restricted to an uncomfortable low-calorie diet of 1570 calories a day. After this grueling period of deprivation, the men were then fed 2000-3000 calories a day. Finally, the study was concluded with the participants being allowed to eat an unlimited number of calories a day.

Physical Effects of Starvation

Similar to anorexia nervosa, the physical effects on the study participants, during the period of restrictive eating resulted in the men becoming:

  • Emaciated
  • Weak
  • Lower body temperatures
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Reduced sex drive

dbt therapy session

Psychological Effects of Starvation

Also, similar to anorexia were the uncomfortable psychological effects that the participants experienced including:

  • Food obsession
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue

Common Themes in Starvation – Voluntary or Involuntary

Interestingly, direct quotes from some of the men in the study sound exactly like the comments I have heard from former clients struggling with anorexia. These quotes include:

“I just don’t have the desire to do the things I should do or the things I want to do”

This starvation study participant’s comment particularly resonated with me as I think of all the times I have heard individuals struggling with anorexia talk about their lack of motivation to do what used to interest them. They frequently quit jobs, school, sports, and hobbies due to starvation-stimulated apathy and low energy.

“Stayed up until 5:00 A.M. last night studying cookbooks. They are so absorbing I can’t stay away from them”

Men and women struggling with anorexia are frequently obsessed with cooking, preparing lavish meals, and researching recipes. They seem to enjoy being near the food they crave so badly, but cannot allow themselves to eat.

“This week of starvation found me completely tired practically every day”

The weakened state of anorexia also leads the sufferer to feel exhausted and want to curtail any extra activities that will only further deplete their precious little energy.

Understanding Opportunities for Loved Ones of Anorexia Sufferers

So, deductions we may take away from the Minnesota Starvation Study or at least consider are:

  1. Starvation, whether voluntary or involuntary, is incredibly taxing on the victim emotionally and physically.
  2. Even people who are at a healthy weight and not inclined toward disordered eating, become obsessed with food and eating when they are deprived of adequate nourishment or subjected to restrictive eating.
  3. Though frustrating to watch a loved one quit activities they once loved, or even need to continue fitting into mainstream society, it is important to understand that any human being, when in starvation, loses the energy to continue their normal routine.
  4. The effects of starvation are gender-neutral. Although all subjects in the 1945 study were male, the characteristics and symptoms of starvation are identical to those experienced by women in similar circumstances.

Maintaining Compassion for Those Suffering from Anorexia

I find these conclusions to be particularly helpful in maintaining compassion for anyone suffering from anorexia. It helps to remember that they are literally experiencing starvation and their minds, bodies, and emotions are significantly altered by their diet of deprivation.

Perhaps we feel frustrated or even angry that someone we care about and who likely has so much going for him or her, is “choosing” to starve themselves.

If we find ourselves thinking this way, it would be wise to combat this “blaming” context with the remembrance of the Minnesota Starvation Study and realize that eating disorders are complex physical, psychological and environmental diseases that our loved ones did not choose. Rather, they fell into the disordered eating behavior of anorexia.

Empathizing with the Effects of Anorexia

We need to empathize with the sufferer and realize the significant physical and psychological effects of the lack of nutrition in their bodies. They may just be too tired and too depleted to keep up their normal lifestyle and it is a result of anorexia, not a moral decision to quit life or give up.

We can be encouraged to realize that once an individual is in recovery from anorexia and receiving adequate nutrition and psychological support, they will again be capable of flourishing and leading an active life as a contributing member of society – just like the participants in this historic study.


  1. Baker, D., & Keramidas, N. (2013). The psychology of hunger. Monitor on Psychology, 44(9), 66-66.
  2. Tucker, T. (2007). The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  3. Guetzkos, H., & Bowman, P. (1946). Men and Hunger: A Psychological Relief Manual for Relief Workers (p. 19,20,22). Elgin: Brethren Publishing House.

Contributor: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 18th, 2014


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