Toward the end of World War II, a biologist by the name of Dr. Ancel Keys set out to determine some of the physiological and psychological effects of restricted food intake in what was known as “the Minnesota starvation study.” The motive, it seems, was to understand the mechanisms of starvation, in order to more adequately handle potential post-war, European famine. The study participants were 36 physically and psychologically healthy men, conscientious objectors to the war, who volunteered to participate in a diet-regimen that cut their normal caloric intake roughly in half for a period of six months. What followed was an unprecedented look into the science and psychology of malnutrition. (One participant, Lester Glick, chronicles some of his experiences here.)
As any observer of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, or the Muslim period of Ramadan may tell you, fasting is a unique psychophysiological state, in which food becomes a primary focus. While religious or spiritual matters may be intended to take center stage, when told to not think about a white horse (or White Castle burger, as the case may be), that’s exactly what we can’t seem to do. Fasters may overindulge the night before, as they “stock up” for the fast, may similarly overindulge post-fast, and often report spending a great deal of time during the fast thinking about food, their hunger, and when they’ll eat again. From a dieting perspective, it’s likely that in the end, they’ve consumed more food than they would have without the fast, with the additional problem of having toyed (albeit briefly) with their metabolism.
In the Minnesota study, now captured by Todd Tucker in the new book, The Great Starvation Experiment, what we saw was a compromised humanity (and throwback to animal times), resulting from food restriction. As participants lost weight, and essentially began to starve, not only did they become incredibly and solely focused on food, but their hunger took on epic proportions—participants reported violent fantasies, contemplating suicide, murder, and ultimately, cannibalism.
A hot topic lately has been the significant increase in adult (and childhood) obesity—recent figures indicate, for example, that 64% of Americans (115 million) are considered overweight or obese. How do we explain this trend? While a number of factors may be involved, taking note from the Minnesota study, as well as the general research suggesting that (depending on which study you reference), 95-98% of all diets fail, it seems that perhaps the simple and repeated act of trying to restrict oneself has actually led to our expanding waistline. Trying to (unnaturally) tame an appetite can have quite a rebound effect, leading to both acute and chronic overeating, as compensation. While most self-imposed food restrictors thankfully do not arrive at the point of suicidal or homicidal ideation, what we can say is that the more weight we try to lose, the more we seem to gain. As a corollary, the more we grow our diet industry (now worth an estimated $40 billion), the more we grow ourselves, begging the question: Is it possible that we are obese simply because we are trying so hard not to be?