If you’ve read my prior posts on Intuitive Eating and Why the Calories-in-to-Calories-out Formula Doesn’t Work, you know I’m incredibly wary of anything that resembles a diet.

Ancel Keys, author is the Minnesota Starvation Study

Ancel Keys, author of the Minnesota Starvation Study

Check out the effects of this World War II-era food deprivation study as quoted from the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.  I marvel at the effects of calorie deprivation in a society that wasn’t at all concerned with diet and exercise.  The effects so closely mirror what people who diet experience today.

“The power of food deprivation was keenly demonstrated in a landmark study conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys during World War II, designed to help famine sufferers. The subjects of the study were thirty-two healthy men who were selected because they had superior ‘psychobiological stamina’ – superior mental and physical health.

“During the first three months of the study the men ate as they pleased, averaging 3,492 calories per day.   The next six months was the semistarvation period.  The men were required to lose 19 to 28 percent of their weight depending on their body composition.  Calories were cut nearly in half, to an average of 1,570 per day.  The effects of the semistarvation were startling, and strikingly mirror the symptoms of chronic dieting:

  • Metabolic rates decreased by 40 percent.
  • The men were obsessed with food.  They had heightened food cravings and talked of food and collecting recipes.
  • Eating style changed – vacillating from ravenous gulping to stalling out the eating experience.  Some men played with their food and dawdled over a meal for two hours.
  • The researchers noted that, ‘Several men failed to adhere to their diets and reported episodes of bulimia.’ One man was reported to have suffered a complete loss of ‘willpower’ and ate several cookies, a sack of popcorn, and two bananas. Another subject ‘flagrantly broke the dietary rules’ and ate several sundaes and malted milks, and even stole penny candy.
  • Some men exercised deliberately to obtain increased food rations.
  • Personalities changed, and in many cases there was the onset of apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression.

“During the refeeding period when the men were once again allowed to eat at will, hunger became insatiable. The men found it difficult to stop eating.  Weekend splurges added up to 8,000 to 10,000 calories.  It took the majority of men an average of five months to normalize their eating.” (Intuitive Eating 2nd edition, Tribole and Resch, pgs. 59-60).

Check out the results of this same study as reported from Wikipedia’s article “Minnesota Starvation Experiment“:

“Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression.[1]:161 . . .Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation.[1]:123–124 The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity. There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest), reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate (Wikipedia.org, “Minnesota Starvation Experiment.”

Participants in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Participants in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Do the symptoms from this starvation study sound oddly familiar?  The study was conducted prior to our society’s obsession with fitness, diet, and exercise, and yet these men, who were specifically selected for their superior mental and physical strength, experienced symptoms that mirror the effects of dieters today – reduced metabolic rate, binge-eating, an obsession with food, over-exercising, mood disorders, and even bulimia. As I read the results from the Wikipedia article, I was especially startled with the long list of psychological changes and disorders that resulted from calorie deprivation.  You know what else is startling?  The men were eating over 1500 calories a day, a calorie level they equated with starvation but which is a common calorie allotment for weight-reduction programs today.

So what’s a girl or guy to do?  We all want to take care of our bodies and maintain a healthy weight, right? The best thing I’ve found is Intuitive Eating – eating every time I’m hungry, eating what truly sounds good, and eating mindfully so I can listen to my body’s signals and stop eating when I’m satisfied.

Yes, I admit there are times, such as when I was injured this past winter, when I worry my body is growing soft and I’m gaining weight.  I become tempted to step on the scale and track calories and eat only “good” food and avoid the “bad”.  When those voices creep in, I try to squelch them as quickly as possible. I know that eating fewer calories than my body needs will reduce (i.e. wreck) my metabolism and lead to food cravings.  When I honor my hunger, I know my weight always adjusts to a healthy point for me.

I’ve been practicing intuitive eating for over five years, through nursing a baby, running marathons, periods of lighter running, vacations, sickness, and injuries.  Yes, I’ve felt my weight gently fluctuate a few pounds up or down throughout these different periods, but my hunger always naturally adjusts to my activity and calorie-burning level to maintain a consistent weight.  No, intuitive eating doesn’t mean all I eat is pizza and ice cream (but yes, I do eat those things and love them).  I’ve found that when I honestly give myself permisson to eat anything at anytime, fruit, oatmeal, fresh vegetables, salads, quinoa, legumes, soup, roasted veggies, meat, and other wholesome foods intuitively sound and taste amazing.  My food cravings are lower and my eating quality is higher as a direct result of intuitive eating.  Yes, I enjoy a small treat or two most days, but my diet is predominated by quality food.

If you’re interested in giving Intuitive Eating a try, I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating, and you can also check out my blog post outlining my transition to eating this way.  If you’ve tried Intuitive Eating, I’d love to hear about your experience.  Please comment below to share!