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Ancel Keys Starvation Study Discussed in Psychology Today

Ancel Keys, of the University of Minnesota, ran starvation studies on conscientious objectors during WWII in order to learn how people react to starvation and how best to help them recover from it. In my opinion, his work is the best and most unbiased examination of the effects of weight loss dieting ever undertaken.

Emily Deans, M.D., an evolutionary psychologist, has written an article for Psychology Today: Dieting Can Make You Lose Your Mind. It reviews Ancel Key's famous study in that light.

Here's how the study went down:

The young men lived in a dorm at the University of Minnesota, and in addition to their restricted diet, they were required to walk 22 miles a week. All their food was prepared in a dormitory kitchen, and once the starvation began, each man's calories were adjusted every Friday to meet a weight loss goal of 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) per week. Their average daily calories during the semistarvation period was about 1600 calories a day (they ate approximately 3200 calories daily before the study).

And here's how the men reacted:

They described lethargy, irritability, anxiety that approached each time they were to learn how much they were allowed to eat the following week... They had dizziness, cold intolerance (requesting heavy blankets even in the middle of summer), muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, edema, and ringing in the ears. Some had to withdraw from their university classes because they did not have the capability to concentrate. Their sex drive disappeared. They became obsessed with food, eating with elaborate rituals (which eating disorder patients also do) and adding water to their plates to make the food last longer. Many collected cookbooks and recipes...

Does any of this sound familiar?

And oh, wow:

Two of the men suffered severe psychological stress - one became suicidal, and another cut off three of his fingers in an act of self-mutilation.

Arizona's $50 Medicaid Fat Fee | Alexandra Beller Dances

strawberry April 9th, 2011 | Link | "...with one going so far as

"...with one going so far as to say we should all be killed so the attractive normal people don't have to look at us."

Yeah, I've heard that one before. I just tell 'em they should stay indoors and watch tv and they'll never have to look at fat people again. Too bad they never appreciate the good advice I give them.

As for burning off a donut or whatever, I've also said that fat people don't have to run as much to burn off X calories because they're working out with extra weight - their own. Gee, why do people take exception to that? It's just a simple law of physics, isn't it? Can't people understand simple thermodynamics? [sarcasm]

TigerHawk310 April 9th, 2011 | Link | Standard food article

Standard food article silliness at the end, unfortunately--after going through the actual experiment showing the negative effects of a starvation diet, the conclusion isn't simply "don't diet"'s "don't diet, but switch to a diet with no processed foods! Like the squirrels!"

You know, based on the government definition of "food insecurity" it seems like pretty much all of our ancestors had to live with food insecurity. Maybe people used to be thinner because they actually were generally in a state of perpetual near hunger? I'm sure among my Lithuanian Jewish peasant ancestors, the ones with inefficient metabolisms starved to death. Frankly, the idea of a thrifty gene makes a lot more sense than this nonsense about how awful modern food is.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 10th, 2011 | Link | Yep, I noticed that. I

Yep, I noticed that. I think it's because the author is an evolutionary psychologist, and that pretty much requires you to add a biased and self-serving slant to any sensible and useful thing you might say. (I'm thinking of course, of how evolutionary psychologists love to try to rationalize sexism). But, I didn't want to make that comment on the main post...

richie79's picture
April 10th, 2011 | Link | "You know, based on the

"You know, based on the government definition of "food insecurity" it seems like pretty much all of our ancestors had to live with food insecurity. Maybe people used to be thinner because they actually were generally in a state of perpetual near hunger? I'm sure among my Lithuanian Jewish peasant ancestors, the ones with inefficient metabolisms starved to death. Frankly, the idea of a thrifty gene makes a lot more sense than this nonsense about how awful modern food is."

Spot on tigerhawk. Just as there are extremists who now insist that the only way to reverse climate change is to revert to a hair-shirt, mud-hut lifestyle devoid of luxuries, there are others who consider wartime-style food rationing an entirely proportional response to 'obesity'. In the US, food security for most people is a feature of the last 50 years; in the UK, it's probably more like the last 30 (my mum has cookbooks from the 1960s and 70s containing instructions on how to prepare cuts of meat and offal we probably wouldn't consider worth the effort now, for the sole reason that they were all many could afford). And with food prices skyrocketing in the last few years the current period of relative plenty could turn out to be a blip, a deviation from a more general trend of food being expensive and difficult to access for most.

What's more, until industrialisation most people had to expend considerable effort (and calories) in obtaining what little food there was, often rearing / growing it themselves without modern agricultural technology (even so, some STILL managed to end up fat! Fancy that!). The downside of industrialisation being that food production and distribution is now carried out centrally using systems which are heavily reliant on fragile technology and most people have lost any connection to or knowledge of the way their food is produced.

A while back I read a post-apoc novel by William Forstchen exploring the aftermath of an EMP attack on the continental US which in destroying all electrical and computer systems and putting vehicles out of action plunged society into anarchy resulting in the starvation of millions. It's been widely hailed as a realistic appraisal of the likely scenario except for one detail - in the story 'the obese' are amongst the first to die off, either through lack of insulin to treat their diabetes (sigh) or through heart attacks caused by the exertion of physical labour necessitated by the destruction of all labour-saving machinery and transportation.

I would contend that in such a situation our evolutionary advantage of being able to efficiently store food would again bear dividends, particularly in surviving the first winter (our ancestors would have stockpiled, something which like many forgotten skills it would take us time to re-learn and re-establish). Scientists seeking ways to defeat or over-ride 'thrifty' genes now considered a liability do so at their peril - we evolved this way for a reason and to assume that we will never again face lean times displays arrogance on a par with those who just a few years ago claimed to have permanently abolished the 'boom-and-bust' of the economic cycle.

In any case, the state of modern society, a place increasingly unfit for human habitation and demonstrably harmful to our mental if not physical health, would appear to support the link between an exponential increase in weight-loss dieting dieting and insanity, particularly of the collective variety.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

Lillian's picture
April 11th, 2011 | Link | I'm fit although I'm nearly

I'm fit although I'm nearly obese by BMI. BMI doesn't determine fitness. I could walk or ride a bike all day if necessary. Weight doesn't determine fitness. It doesn't take long to go from unfit to fit. There are programs to train someone from being able to jog only twenty minutes to being able to do a marathon in four months. When I was hired to work night shift, I found that I could work ten hours on my feet doing heavy labor for ten hours. I was a housewife before. People are quite adaptable.

In Cuba, when the Soviet Union, the population adapted to the lacks of fossil fuels. They started home based farms. The most vulnerable were the very old and very young, not the overweight. The average weight loss from the period of starvation until people started to harvest from their home farms was about ten kilos. The people learned how to live without fossil fuels and food imports. Organic farming can be done. Cubans use all available spaces for gardens.

Even most people with type 2 diabetes could make it without regular medications. There are natural remedies. Most type 2 diabetics don't need insulin. They could be regulated with diet, exercise and natural remedies. Type 1's would be in trouble. I hate that people believe that most obese people have diabetes or will have it. When I was young although my sugar was in the low normal range, the doctor would give me a diabetic diet like I would come down with diabetes just because I was five or ten pounds heavier than he thought I should weight. By the way, at that time, I wasn't even overweight by the normal height weight charts at the time. Now, I have better doctors, not ones my parents picked out. An overweight person isn't diabetic waiting to happen.

Viola's picture
April 9th, 2011 | Link | I first remember reading

I first remember reading about the Ancel Keys study in college, in some book someone lent to me that was about fat issues. I can't remember what it was--Fat is a Feminist Issue, maybe? Such a Pretty Face? OK, probably not either of those, but darn it, now I can't remember. Anyway, it was one of those eye opening realizations, which eventually prompted me to stop dieting and just think about healthy eating and exercise. I then forgot about it over the years until I read Glen Gaesser's book, while I was on Weight Watchers. But at the time I first read of Ancel Keys, I was dealing with the inability to lose more weight after having lost about 70 lbs on an 800 calorie diet.

Well, actually, it was a diet that was 800 calories a day for 2 weeks, then 1100 calories a day. I started out pretty well on the diet, but it's possible that I was adding in more calories and maybe it ended up being a 1100/1500 rotation. All I know is I never lost weight in that third week, when I was on the supposed 1100 calorie rotation, and then I stopped losing weight altogether. Then I was gaining weight, trying like mad to keep it off some days, not caring on other days.

As a teenaged girl, my pediatrician also recommended an 800 calorie diet for me, so this seemed pretty standard. My sister had to count calories and keep it right around 1000 after her Roux-en-Y surgery, or else she didn't lose weight. 1600 calories is what a number of people on the CRON diet seem to eat. Some only eat 1300 a day, at least from what I read when I was on the CRON listserv list, trying to decide if calorie restriction as a lifestyle choice was really something I could embrace (and I think this was after I read the Gaesser book, go figure). I think it depends on how active you are, but what I took away from the CR stuff is that you're supposed to suppress some of the bodily functions that would increase metabolism and your need for calories. I wasn't sure if greater longevity was really worth all of that.

So the men in the Ancel Keys study were "normal" weight and were required to lose weight , and to exercise by walking over 3 miles a day. And as their calories decreased, they developed disordered thinking about food, among other issues. I had no idea that one guy wanted to kill himself, or another guy cut off some fingers. Gina Kolata talks about some of the mental issues involved with starvation, and how some people hit that level at a different weight than others. But I feel like if you even try and bring this up to people as evidence of the issues involved with weight loss, it has no meaning. They would just argue that if you aren't overweight, of course losing weight and starving is painful. If you are overweight, there is no starvation, you're just eating food you don't need, you have all the nourishment you need in your fat cells, have at it.

I think it's interesting, though, that many fat people don't lose weight until they get below a certain threshold of calories, that seems like it is lower than what is required for thin people to lose weight--of course everyone in this study was a man, and men typically are told to eat more for the same amount of weight loss, so that might be part of it.

vesta44's picture
April 14th, 2011 | Link | Erin S - When my husband was

Erin S - When my husband was in the hospital having his knee replaced, they couldn't understand why his blood sugar was high all the time (he has type 2 diabetes). They had him on their typical "diabetic" diet and when I saw what they were feeding him, and the amount of insulin they were giving him, I told the nurses "WTF do you expect? You're giving him high carb meals and low amounts of insulin, of course his blood glucose is going to be high, especially since he's recovering from major surgery!" I told them "At home, we count carbs, and limit them to 30 grams or less per meal, and his short-acting insulin is dosed according to what his blood sugar is before the meal plus whatever carbs he's getting at the meal. That covers how the meal will raise his blood sugar based on how high/low his blood sugar was before the meal." And they didn't test his blood as often as we tested it at home either, they tested once a day, we tested at least 3 times, sometimes more often. You would think that medical personnel would know how to treat type 2 diabetes effectively, but they don't, not really, not in hospitals.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

worrier April 14th, 2011 | Link | "I guess they don't have

"I guess they don't have tastebuds or something."

A lot of people don't get that different things taste different for different people. They expect everyone to experience taste the same way. I said to someone once that I don't drink artificially sweetened drinks because I hate the chemical aftertaste, and she said "what chemical aftertaste?". That was an eye opener for me that we all taste things differently. I also have a little theory. I think years of yo-yo dieting makes people more sensitive to taste. I think going back and forward from dieting type food which is often less appetising to eating the food people have been denying themselves which is highly appetising gives people a high sensitivity to taste.

pocomommy April 14th, 2011 | Link | Hey, Erin, artificial

Hey, Erin, artificial sweetners like Splenda, Equal, etc., make me sick as a dog too. Gut aches like you would not believe. I have diabetes, so I try to limit sugars, and when I realized that I could not tolerate artificial sweetners, I was really bummed out. I must say, stevia has been a real savior for me, it does not cause the slightest prob. Of course, YMMV, but in my case, it's been a fabulous substitute for Splenda, etc.

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