What a 1944 Starvation Experiment Reveals About 2020 Food Insecurity
Even brief food restriction can have long-lasting effects
This story is part of How to Eat in the New Normal, a weeklong series about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat, with expert advice for making food choices that help you stay healthy and happy.
The experiment began in November 1944. Thirty-six young men, each thoroughly vetted for physical health and mental soundness, entered a laboratory beneath the football stadium of the University of Minnesota in order to be starved. A year later, 32 walked out, changed men in a changed world.
The landmark study, now known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, was conceived by physiologist Ancel Keys at the height of World War II. With support from the U.S. Army, Keys intended to study the effects of starvation to help guide relief efforts among the famished populations of Europe and Asia. In the end, it served a very different purpose. Today, 75 years later, Keys’ study informs the treatment of eating disorders and highlights the consequences of diet cycling — two issues endemic to postwar America more than anywhere else.
What happened in that lab reads like a prologue to the long, strange chapter of American eating that began with the war’s end: an era of unparalleled bounty juxtaposed with gnawing hunger. The diet business boomed into a multibillion-dollar industry, as average- and high-income Americans paid to go hungry. Meanwhile, millions suffered scarcity, struggling to afford food or unable to access it. Food insecurity, both genuine and self-imposed, spread like a quiet plague in the years after World War II.
Today, as we fight a new great global battle, stocking our cabinets against an uncertain future, the Minnesota experiment may tell us even more about what and how we will be eating when the next chapter begins.
Keys’ plan was fairly simple: The study began with a three-month control period, during which subjects were fed approximately 3,200 calories a day—there were slight variations depending on height and activity level—to bring each man to his “normal” weight. Throughout the experiment…