A very interesting study examining the physical and psychological effects of semi-starvation during World War II sheds light on this relationship. In the 1950’s, a number of “conscientious objectors,” or individuals who for moral reasons refused to serve in the military, took place in a starvation study to help researchers better understand the relationship between the mind and body during starvation. The study was also designed to help guide leaders in how best to care for civilians who had been starved during the war.
The Starvation Study restricted the caloric intake of 36 physically and psychologically healthy men for 6 months. During the first 3 months of the experiment the men ate normally, while their behavior, personality and eating patterns were studied. During the next 6 months, the men were restricted to a diet consisting of half of their former caloric intake and thereby forced to lose 25% of their total body weight. Individual response to weight loss varied, but the men experienced dramatic physical, psychological and social changes.
The substantial decrease in calories led to several obvious outcomes: the men became impatient, had less energy, were dizzy, tired and showed a decreased tolerance for cold temperatures, specifically by asking for extra blankets in the middle of summer. They experienced muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination and ringing in their ears. They showed sensitivity to noise and light and had poor motor control. Some were forced to withdraw from university classes because they did not have the energy or motivation to attend and concentrate. They lost interest in women and dating. They also experienced skin changes, neurological deficits and anemia.
The most interesting outcomes of the study were the psychological changes. Many experienced extreme emotional disturbances. Depression became more severe over the course of the experiment. Mood swings were extreme, participants showed anxiety, apathy, irritability, anger, lack of personal hygiene; several began showing symptoms of severe psychological disturbance.
There was a dramatic increase in the men’s preoccupation with food and eating. Food became topics of conversation, daydreams and reading. The men began collecting food-related items such as cookbooks, recipes and utensils. One participant reported owning over 100 cookbooks by the time the experiment was over. The tendency to hoard is not uncommon in anorexic patients. And for some in this study, the hoarding extended to non-food related items and junk. Despite not having any particular interest in food before the study, 40% of participants mentioned cooking as part of their post-study plans, and 3 even went ahead with changing careers to cooking and agriculture after the study ended.
For these men, food became an obsession. Eating habits changed and became ritualistic. Many followed complex processes to make the food last longer and spent most of the day planning how they would eat their allotment of food. Some men insisted on eating in complete silence. Others demanded the food extra hot, mixed into unusual concoctions, or diluted with water so it looked like a larger portion. The use of salt and coffee increased exponentially. Gum chewing became excessive, with some men chewing up to 40 packs of gum per day. The participants reported that they were constantly thinking about food: one participant recalls watching a movie and ignoring the storyline; instead he paid closer attention to what the actors were eating.
Following the starvation period, there was a 12-week refeeding phase, in which the men were slowly reintroduced to normal amounts of food. During this period, many of the abnormal attitudes and behaviors in regards to food persisted. Many of the men broke down. Some experienced serious difficulties when confronted with unlimited access to food, eating 5000-6000 calories at a time, and some eating over 10,000 calories in a weekend. This bingeing lead to physical problems, headaches, nausea, and intestinal distress. For some, the binge eating persisted for several months. Finally, the symptoms of mental disturbance did not disappear immediately. In some cases, they worsened, with one participant even chopping off 3 of his fingers.
The psychological aspects of this study are noteworthy. The influence that a starving body has on the mind is fascinating. The take-home message is that the human body is tremendously adaptive: you become much more oriented toward food when starved. Therefore, when trying to lose weight, or when depressed, anxious or frustrated, remember the mind-body connection. It is important to maintain a healthy diet in order to preserve both your emotional and mental health.
- Nicole Andreoli, PhD