** Content warning: This article mentions specific calorie counts as part of The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. If you are struggling with restriction, obsession or disordered eating, the following article may be distressing for you – please close this window. **
If I say the word “restriction” to you in terms of an intense caloric deficit, what do you picture?
You’d probably tell me that you pictured an emaciated, physically unwell person pushing their body to the brink of breaking point… but what about their brain?
The truth is, restriction isn’t just physically bad for you. The mental impacts are profound.
You may have heard of The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Now, back in 1944 they were just a tad more lax with the parameters of what a human scientific study actually looks like… and this experiment would certainly not be allowed to be carried out today.
But we can learn a hell of a lot from it – make sure to read through to the end, as this has some pretty huge impacts for YOU and your health today.
Healthy, totally mentally stable men volunteered to be part of the experiment, which had a purpose of learning about the effects of starvation and how to re-feed people who’d been in famine (it was the end of WWII).
The volunteers went through a “control period” where they were fed normally, eating over 3000 calories per day. Their caloric intakes were then dropped to 1570 a day.
In the 1940s, 1570 calories was classified as “semi-starvation” and the impacts of the calorie restriction confirmed this – otherwise previously physically healthy men soon became skeletal. But, the mental impacts were even worse than anyone had expected.
- They became almost immediately obsessed with food and started developing ritualistic behaviours around food.
- They showed tendencies associated with general anxiety and the scientists observed them becoming irritable and impatient very rapidly.
- They lost interest in previous passions and likes – romance, sex, politics, hobbies. Their primary concern became food.
- They developed addictive behaviours around “replacements” including coffee and chewing gum.
- Body dysmorphia ran rampant. They began feeling that they were disproportionately fat in comparison to the general population (all of the men were at a healthy weight prior to the study commencing).
- Several of the subjects experienced severe mental illness – one man began having vivid thoughts of cannibalism and suicidal ideation. Once sent to a psychiatric ward, his mental state returned to normality fully within a matter of weeks after being placed back on a healthy food intake.
After the starvation period concluded, the men were returned to a normal calorie diet. The only thing that proved to restore them from a state of mental dysfunction was consuming thousands of calories… and, even after eating ravenously to a point of over-consumption, many of the men still complained of feeling insatiably hungry.
Many of the men also reported feeling more anxious during the re-feeding period than they did during the starvation period.
The takeaway lessons
All of these profound mental impacts were caused by restriction alone.
They weren’t tormented or bullied or told that they were unlovable… they were simply made to starve themselves. And all of the impacts that I’ve discussed above are only the mental side of things!
We cannot ignore the link between mind and body. The evidence is profound. The results are conclusive.
What this means for you, right now
You might recall that I mentioned earlier that due to today’s (thankfully) humane limitations on scientific studies, we’d never be able to replicate this experiment today…
… except that we do. Millions of us. In the privacy of our own homes.
1570 calories a day was used as the basis for semi-starvation. How many diet books have you read that advise to consume between 1200 – 1800 calories a day to lose weight? How many “health” magazines have you read that have told you that 1500 calories a day is a “normal” amount of calories to consume?
Let’s put this in perspective:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, young children ages 2 and 3 need about 1,000 to 1,400 calories each day to maintain a healthy body weight. Active toddlers require more calories than those who are inactive, and older toddlers need more calories than the younger ones. Since toddlers have small stomachs, offer your toddler a meal or snack every few hours on a regular basis. Most toddlers stop eating when they feel full.
Gallstones, fatigue, hair, bone and muscle loss, electrolyte imbalances and possibly death are among the potential side effects of severe calorie restriction.
So, the next time you’re considering dieting or restriction as a “healthy” way of reducing your body mass, ask yourself these questions:
- “Am I ensuring to prioritise my physical and mental health right now?”
- “Am I basing my decisions on the personalised health advice specific to my body of medical professionals?”
- “Does my self-worth hinge on the basis of me reducing the number on the scale?”
It is ENTIRELY possible to lose weight without starvation. It’s entirely possible to do it without adverse physical or mental side effects.
I’m going to leave you with this final point:
Ultimately, if your quest for health through weight loss involves jeopardising your health (either physically or mentally) in any way to get there… you need to be questioning the merit of the “health” advice that you’ve been given.
You deserve better than than, don’t you think?
Here, instead, are 50 reasons why you should make body positivity your priority this year.