The Great Starvation Experiment – Part 1

I just realized that its been a while since I posted anything on here and that too only because some folks emailed me confirming my existence. For those who care, all I did during the last week was to read, hang with my lovely lady and our little one, train hard, eat real food (along with plenty of frozen yogurt), sleep long hours and pretty much not worry about anything. Basically I was doing pretty much everything that is recommended by the master chiller! Anyways, its time to get back to work and I’m back with a subject you guys will love – Fat loss!

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Not too long ago, in 1941, during World War II, there was a city called Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) that was surrounded by Hitler’s army but refused to surrender. This, obviously, wasn’t good news to Hitler (who now had to feed its people) and so to overcome this issue and make them surrender, Hitler devised a genius idea. He ordered that the Leningraders be starved into submission. This siege was expected to last 872 days (~ 2.5 years).

Following Hitler’s orders, the government suddenly and drastically reduced food rationing and allotted bread and cabbage that amounted to only 700 calories/day to manual workers, 473 calories/day for non-manual workers and 423 calories/day for children (HCG diet anyone?). This accounted to ~ 1/5th the calories required to maintain their current bodyweight and as a result chronic starvation began. As hunger became rampant, zoo animals were the first to be killed and consumed which was followed by people murdering and eating their beloved pets. As temperatures dropped to – 40 F and all animals disappeared, people stripped away wallpapers from their walls, scrapped the paste (glue) from them and boiled that into a soup (since the glue was made with potato starch). This and boiled leather served as food for a short time. By the second year of the siege, all the animals, wall papers and leather were gone and people turned to eating, well, corpses. Though this was sustainable, the hungry man always looked for fresher meat and turned to children. By 1944, as corpses and children were hard to find, there were reports of people cutting of their own body parts and consuming them. Clearly, things were pretty messed up!

I’d request you to take a moment here and understand that THIS is starvation. Next time you hear yourself complain about your stomach grumbling or get irked ‘cos you missed a meal, knock yourself on the head and deal with it.

Anyways, many regions in the world suffered from starvation and malnutrition, not due to natural causes but due to struggle for power and supremacy, and this was just one terrible example of the role hunger played just 70 years back. Many many people were being affected. The good news was that the war was predicted to end soon. But there was an issue. Researchers expected to see millions of starved, famished and diseased people at the end of the war but no one really knew how to rehabilitate these people.

Enter Ancel Keys:

In order to devise a rehabilitation strategy, Ancel Keys and his team of researchers, decided to conduct an experiment. The plan was that they would recruit a number of people, determine their caloric needs to maintain their weight, suddenly and drastically slash their caloric intake by an amount to simulate actual semi-starvation, closely study the effects of starvation and then use that data to create a rehabilitation strategy that can be used to help the millions of famished people that walk out alive after the war. The study was planned to last for 12 months, which was divided into Control Period (3 months), Semi-starvation Period (6 months) and Restricted Rehabilitation Period (3 months). Here is some information about the experiment and the test subjects.

  • Total test subjects: 36
  • Age range: 22 to 33
  • Average body weight: 152.7 lbs
  • Average body fat: 14% [Hydrostatic weighing]
  • Average height: 5′ 10″
  • Physical Activity: ~ 40 miles of walking/week (Each subject must walk 22 miles per week in addition to treadmill time at the lab and the 2-3 mile walk to and from the dining hall)
  • Other Activity: All subjects were given jobs that would occupy 15 hours per week.
  • Monitoring: All subjects were put in a calorie deficit such that they lost 25% of their initial body weights at the end of the 6 months of semi-starvation. Their weight loss curves were predicted, created and considered a bible. If any subject deviated from the curve, their calories would be reduced further and deviations continued their freedom would be restricted to keep tab on cheating.
  • Food: All food provided to the subjects was meticulously weighed and measured and portioned.
  • Free foods: Subjects could consume as much water, black coffee, gum and cigarettes as they wished.
  • Freedom: All subjects were given full freedom to go anywhere and everywhere with the only condition being they had to eat ONLY what was provided to them by the research team.

So the subjects were basically fit, young men who were very active and back in the day finding such people didn’t require recruitment at a gym! They were fit and free humans with jobs and activities that kept them occupied. Back in the 40s, dieting wasn’t really a thing you know. People were active and worked hard all day and ate plenty of good real food to fuel them. But whats scary is that the study design is almost exactly like how a person today would go about ‘dieting’. Find a guy on street and ask him to go on a diet. He will immediately eat (very ) less and get into a relationship with the treadmill. The only differences being that people, today, put themselves through these calorie restricted diets. This similarity and what we can learn from this study is the purpose of this analysis. So refill that cup of coffee and pay attention.

The Control Period:

This was a 3 month phase during which the researchers played with caloric intake of the different subjects to establish their maintenance calories i.e. the amount of calories required to maintain their current weight. At the end of the control period, the subjects were eating 3 meals a day and the average number of calories for maintenance was determined to be 3,210. That sounds about right for a 150 lb male with 14% BF who walks about 40 miles per week. Also, in addition to calories, plenty of other parameters like heart size, blood volume, hearing, vision and sperm count were monitored.

The Semi-starvation Period:

This was a 6 month phase during which the subject’s calorie intake was suddenly and drastically reduced. This was done by reducing meal frequency to 2 and average calories to 1,570 calories/day (calorie deficit of 1,640 calories which is more than a 50% reduction!) right from day 1. Food was limited to mostly potatoes, cabbage and whole wheat bread in order to simulate food available in European famine zones. Only vitamins A, thiamine, niacin, C and C were monitored since the concept of vitamins was fairly new at that time. A sample dinner is shown below (Pay no attention to the markings. I tend to get excited when reading studies).

So what happened during this 6 month phase of semi-starvation? Did the subjects lose weight as expected? Well, yes, the intense calorie restriction resulted in weight loss and, in fact, almost perfectly as predicted (in most cases). But what else happened? This is where things start to get interesting.

Results of semi-starvation (intense calorie restriction):

  • All subjects lost their libido and lost interest in being attractive to the opposite sex or in the act of sex.
  • Most subjects said they were disinterested in any activity and preferred isolation.
  • Nightmares were common. Most nightmares were dominated by food and cannibalism.
  • Everyone is the study said that all they thought about was food and accepted that they would save recipes and food pictures and keep staring at them (like porn).
  • Loss of muscular strength and endurance was very prevalent and very significant.
  • Many subjects were known to be angry and irritable all the time yelling, cursing and breaking things.
  • Cheating (eating more food outside) seemed more and more like a wise choice, but the following feeling of failure forced subjects to deny cheating to other and themselves.
  • Consumption of coffee and chewing gum rose greatly. One of the subjects chewed 40 packs of gum everyday!
  • As time went by, the goal of completing the study and hence providing invaluable information to mankind, didn’t seem worthy.
  • Fatigue and tiredness was very significant.
  • Food palatability increased significantly to a point that even food in the garbage seemed tasty.
  • A relief meal (cheat meal) provided by the researchers after 15 weeks of semi-starvation, resurrected sanity and focus towards end goal.
  • Excessive urination (due to excessive consumption of water and coffee).
  • Subjects became obsessed about their body functions trying to note every small change from urination frequency and urine color to joint pains etc.
  • Sitting became hard due to lack of cushioning.
  • Body temperature dropped from 98.6 to 95.8 F and subjects constantly complained that they were unable to bear even the mildest drop in temperatures.
  • Heart rate dropped from 55 to 35 bpm.
  • Body fat dropped from 14% to 5%.
  • Edema (water retention resulting in swollen joints) was prevalent in the camp.
  • Ability to concentrate, focus and even to care about anything was lost.
  • Faces turned gaunt and pale.
  • Tolerance to music and speech went down since hunger sharpened hearing.
  • Basic ability to coordinate deteriorated.
  • Hair became visibly coarse and thin.

Before we talk about the restricted rehabilitation phase, let me sum this up for you.

A group of healthy, young and fit adults were put on an intense (~ 1,600) calorie restricted diet for a period of 24 weeks. As a result, the subjects lost on average ~ 37 lbs and ~ 9% body fat. That is 4% body weight weight loss and 1.5% body fat loss per month. In addition to losing weight, these young adults, experienced low libido, high irritability, inability to handle cold, food cravings, nightmares, food dreams, loss of focus, fatigue, hair loss, forced cheating, disinterest in socialization among other things.

Today, how often do young adults go on severely calorie restricted diets and lose more weight at a rate faster than this? How many of us have experienced or are experiencing these symptoms? So then, is calorie restriction bad for health? Is dieting unhealthy? Is chronic dieting dangerous? What does this super controlled experiment, which is basically a perfect simulation of modern day dieting, teach us?

In the following posts in this series, I will answer these questions in detail, discuss the rehabilitation phase (and it’s effects on the subjects) and use this data to give you an answer for the million dollar question – ‘How much weight/fat can I lose per month?’. I don’t want to give anything away, but there is more to this analysis than just comparing scenarios and more methods to the madness of calorie restriction that determine whether it is evil or elixir.

Be sure to catch those upcoming posts by subscribing to via email (button up top) and in the meantime, please share your thoughts regarding the study and on the questions I posed.

Peace out.

Note: All the data, observations and pictures presented here can be found in the book titled The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker.

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24 responses to “The Great Starvation Experiment – Part 1

  1. Divya July 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    ZOMG! This is *such* a kick-ass post, Raj! Has to be one of the most awesome and informative write-ups I’ve read in a really long time. Can’t wait for the follow-up posts!!

  2. Ganesh RK July 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Good post Raj.

  3. Sheetal July 7, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    The post rocks Raj! Waiting for the next ones.

  4. arv43 July 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Amazing post! “Body temperature dropped from 98.6 to 85.8F” – holy freakin’ shit, a wonder people didn’t die. Or did they? If this post doesn’t turn people off of crash dieting, I am not sure what will.
    I’ve always focussed only on his “Seven Countries Study” and never on this. Definitely an eye-opener for me! Fun fact – the dude lived to be a 100!

    • RG July 7, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      Actually, that was a typo. It was meant to be 95.8 F. Thank you. Fixed now.

      Yea, Keys is well known and well criticized for the 7 countries study (which happened around the same time as this one), but he, in general, was one of the top scientists of the time.

  5. Mamatha July 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    If that’s the result of semi-starvation, I can’t imagine what the starvation phase led to. Awesome post, cant wait to read the subsequent ones.

    • RG July 7, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      They actually never did a proper ‘starvation’ phase since they only wanted to study rehab and not starvation itself. But you’ll see in the subsequent posts, what eventually happened. It is indeed very interesting.

  6. Parul July 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Scary shit!

  7. Navya July 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Scary Raj! Early in the morning, your email was the first one I opened… And this comes up!

  8. Vizeet July 10, 2011 at 2:47 am

    Brilliant post Raj and horrifying too!!!
    Starving is a big word, nutritionist use it to define fasting. Just imagine this — a healthy young adult can remain in water only fast (with electrolytes) for almost 2 weeks without any health implications. So when we say starving it means what is there in the post.
    Our body creates cravings/nightmares to fulfill its requirement, there is nothing right and wrong for this machine which does everything to keep itself alive.
    We know about pregnancy cravings; imagine kind of craving will happen in case of starving when your body craves for everything even iron will be tasty.

  9. Reva July 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    amazing post.. and can’t wait for the next one!

  10. Pingback: The Great Starvation Experiment – Part 2 « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

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  12. Aesir Sports (@FurorGermanicus) April 1, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Cheers Raj,
    I stumbled by coincidence over your blog an this great article regarding the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. I did some research, ’cause I wanted some infos about the book you reviewed in this magnificient post. Very fascinating and intriguing. Well what else to say: I bought the book right away thanks to you.

    Anyway, I run an german sports blog myself called Aesir Sports @ aesirsports.blogspot.com and just wanted to ask: Do you mind, if I translate those two great pieces of your work into German language, so that fellow Germans who aren’t that good into the English idoma can profit from this sum up? Of course: the credit would be all yours including a reference link to your blog (which I just added on my own blogroll by the way ;))

    Just give me a call if its okay with you. I would appreciate that!
    Keep up the good work

    Furor Germanicus

  13. Pingback: Kalorienrestriktion & Diät: Das Minnesota Starvation Experiment

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