What a 1944 Starvation Experiment Reveals About 2020 Food Insecurity
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, subjects could eat only the food Keys prescribed, taking all meals together in a university dining hall. Each portion was carefully prepared and weighed before serving, and every meal was eaten under the watchful gaze of Keys’ team. During the control period, meals were designed to replicate those they were used to: roast beef, fricasseed lamb, carrot-raisin salad, and ice cream.
Next came the hard part: six months of starvation, designed to reduce each subject’s body weight by 25%. Calories were cut to approximately 1,570 per day, and cuisine was limited to what might be available in the food-scarce areas of Europe: cabbage, bean soups, macaroni and cheese, and, most of all, potatoes.
Some gobbled down the food as fast as possible, while others lingered over every precious morsel, chewing in slow motion and infuriating their tablemates.
In reality, this deprivation was nothing compared to the terror abroad. The hongerwinter had just begun in the Netherlands, and food rations were dropping as low as 400 calories per day. In besieged Leningrad, civilians had first eaten their pets, then belts and bookbindings, and finally, each other. Americans had endured moderate food rationing since the start of the war—a measure imposed to stop rampant food hoarding—with limitations placed on items like butter and sugar. But most could not conceive of the famine ravaging those people “over there.” And it would be months before the first photos of Nazi death camps would hit U.S. papers and Americans would see the unspeakable horror of hunger weaponized.
Keys’ subjects needed no convincing, though. These men, most in their early twenties, were conscientious objectors (COs) enrolled in the Civilian Public Service, a program through which pacifists could serve in nonmilitary roles: fighting forest fires, staffing psychiatric wards, and volunteering as “guinea pigs” for medical experiments. In the public eye, COs were historically maligned as cowards, when in fact they were willing to take great personal risks for their country — just not fight for it. “It’s hard to understand now how deep your commitment to pacifism would have to be to take this stance during World War II, which was almost universally regarded as a just cause,” noted Todd Tucker, author of The Great Starvation Experiment. “You had to be almost painfully idealistic.” More than 400 COs applied; Keys chose these 36 not just for their overall health but also for their exceptional moral fortitude, amiability, and sense of responsibility to humanity. Thus, the “guinea pigs” (a term the subjects used themselves) began the starvation phase in high spirits, welcoming the chance to suffer for the greater good.
As guinea pigs, they lived under near-constant observation: They ate together, slept together in a communal dorm within the underground lab, and were subjected to endurance tests, physical exams, and psychiatric interviews. But the men were also required to maintain some semblance of normal life to demonstrate how hunger affected it. They walked a minimum of 22 miles a week and found part-time jobs in town or on campus.
Hunger hits the brain fast. In the first few weeks after the control period, the jocular mood dropped to a simmering grumble. The subjects groused in their (mandatory) diaries about the interminable hours between meals. They complained of feeling tired and foggy, but mostly they just talked about food. During the control period, they had dated and socialized, and like all Americans, pored over newspapers to keep abreast of the war. But as the starvation phase continued, their focus narrowed to the plates in front of them.
Mealtimes grew tense as each man developed his own strange eating habits. Some gobbled down the food as fast as possible, while others lingered over every precious morsel, chewing in slow motion and infuriating their tablemates. They “souped” meals with water to make them feel more filling and licked their plates clean. One subject, Samuel Legg, refused to sit with the group during meals. Isolated at his table, he would pulverize and mix all the items on his tray — fish soup, cheese, lettuce, bread — pile it into a great gray lump, and eat the repulsive puree.
Keys’ experiment was working: His subjects exhibited the same behavior as those persecuted and starving abroad — without actually being persecuted or starved.
Some collected cookbooks, staying up all night to ogle recipes. They stopped having sex dreams and now dreamed of luscious feasts or had gruesome nightmares of cannibalism. Some frequented local restaurants, where they’d sit and stare at dining patrons, guzzling black coffee. (This was allowed in unlimited quantities, as was gum, which subjects chewed constantly, up to 40 packs a day.) Others couldn’t stand the sight of people eating. They’d go to the movies, desperate for distraction, but find themselves so fixated on prop food in the background that they couldn’t keep up with the story. It didn’t matter anyway, they told the scientists. Romance, drama, comedy — none engaged them anymore. They could recognize a joke as funny but could not laugh.
In short, Keys’ experiment was working: His subjects exhibited the same behavior as those persecuted and starving abroad — without actually being persecuted or starved. By modern standards, 1,570 calories a day wouldn’t even be considered that strict. “The degree of restriction wasn’t as much as we see today in diet culture,” says Julie Dillon, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist. Mainstream diets like Jenny Craig and the Noom app offer plans as low as 1,200. That’s not to say the Minnesota subjects were well fed — hardly. “Technically, it’s called ‘semistarvation,’ what they were doing,” Dillon says. “But from a diet culture perspective, it was an amount of food that some people think is too much. And it was already having these effects.”
What confounded Keys was that those effects continued — worsened, in fact — after the starvation phase ended. As Keys slowly increased their calories, the men seemed even more agitated and obsessed with food. Four had already been dismissed from the experiment for cheating. One confessed to eating garbage for months. Another said he’d blacked out in a grocery store and then came to shoving stolen food into his mouth. Two men were sent to the university hospital’s psychiatric ward: One had been exhibiting psychotic symptoms, threatening to kill himself and Keys. Samuel Legg actually chopped off his own fingers with an ax. Lying in the hospital, Legg begged Keys to let him finish the study, insisting it was an accident. (Keys knew better; Legg had suffered a similar “accident” the week prior.) “For the rest of my life, people are going to ask me what I did during the war,” Legg implored. “This experiment is my chance to give an honorable answer to that question.”
The war ended sooner than expected — months before the study’s conclusion in December 1945. It would be five more years before Keys would publish his groundbreaking text, The Biology of Human Starvation. By then, the dust had settled on a changed world.
While much of the world still lived in the shadow of the war, Americans were riding high on an economic boom — the white wealthy Americans, specifically. Wartime rationing was long gone, but now dieting was de rigueur. This was the era of slimming creams, doctor-prescribed weight-loss pills, and quick-fix diets of 1,000 calories or less. “Starvation” was no longer an atrocity, but a fad.
Our bodies don’t distinguish between a crash diet and a famine.
As for the Minnesota subjects, Keys had expected they would recover quickly once they were allowed to eat normally again. But they didn’t seem to know how anymore. “It was remarkable how much they ate,” says Elke Eckert, MD, a psychiatrist who led a follow-up study on 19 of the Minnesota subjects in 2002. “One of them ate so much he had to go to the hospital and almost died.” What surprised both Eckert and Keys was how long these extreme eating habits lasted. Before the experiment, none of these men had experienced food scarcity, nor had they dieted; six months of deprivation transformed them. According to Eckert, they gained an average of 22 pounds above their starting weights, and some struggled with “abnormal eating” for years. Their perspective on food, they said, was irrevocably changed. Still, all but one said he would do the experiment again, regardless of the damage it did to them personally. Several went on to do relief work or world hunger advocacy. Again, Eckert notes, these were exceptional people living through an extraordinary moment in time.
Yet that’s precisely what made the Minnesota Starvation Experiment so relevant in the decades after World War II — and even more so today, as we endure the greatest global crisis since. It demonstrates the primal wound of food deprivation and the scar it leaves on our psyches. The Minnesota subjects, Holocaust victims, adolescent anorectics, and chronic dieters all share common symptoms, despite vastly different circumstances. Our bodies don’t distinguish between a crash diet and a famine.
“Restriction, whether it’s from dieting or food scarcity, can lead to behavior that we would call disordered,” Julie Dillon says. “Even the threat of limited food makes our brains overly fixated on it” — one reason for empty supermarket shelves as of late. Perhaps the most profound finding of this study is not the dramatic effects of hunger, but the fact that these effects are universal and timeless — and nothing can inoculate against them. “The study design was really robust in that they only studied people who were physically and emotionally healthy,” Dillon says. “No evidence of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, or any kind of emotional instability.” Furthermore, they were white, male, and had never lacked for food. “These were people who had the most privilege and access,” she says. “And many of us aren’t starting in that place.”
Indeed, many are starting at a drastic disadvantage. In 2018, the USDA estimated that 11.1% (approximately 37 million) Americans were “food insecure” — meaning without consistent access to sufficient food. About a third fell into an income bracket just shy of the poverty line, unable to qualify for federal assistance but one missed paycheck away from hunger. Others lived in food deserts — areas without enough grocery stores or transportation to get to them.
Then came Covid-19 and the ensuing stay-home orders, making food even harder to come by for everyone but particularly those already struggling to keep their cabinets stocked. Basics like flour have become luxury items. Food banks are buckling under unprecedented demand, while the supply of donated food has dried up. And with the country at an indefinite (though crucial) standstill, the problem only grows. For context, Feeding America estimates that when the unemployment rate goes up a percentage point, approximately 4 million more people experience food insecurity. In March, the rate rose from 3.5% to 4.4%. It is expected to rise above 10% in April and upward of 30% by the end of the quarter.
The full scope of this pandemic’s effect on our economy, and our very way of life, remains unknown. But one thing we do know is that despite the barren supermarket shelves, there is plenty of food in the country. The panic buying that began in February did cause major disruption in supply chains but not in the food supply itself. On April 16, USDA chief food economist Robert Johansson published a detailed analysis of what happened to our groceries — why milk got so expensive and flour disappeared — and what’s to come. “Prices should stabilize or even decline,” Johansson says. Wholesale egg prices in New York hit a record high of $3.07 per dozen in March, as the state prepared for an indefinite lockdown. Just a few weeks later, he points out, the price fell to $1.97. Furthermore, with the entire service industry essentially closed, restaurant and hotel suppliers are now redirecting huge volumes of ingredients to grocers. “But these changes will take time.”
“People trying to make order out of chaos by getting all these cans of beans and soup, and lining them up neatly, knowing that they’re going to take care of their family.”
Things will normalize, but like everything else in the world, our food may never be “back to normal.” There are still many unknowns about how this pandemic will affect the logistics of food production in the long term. The future of restaurants and brick-and-mortar groceries is in limbo. “It’s also unclear how food consumption patterns will change,” Johansson says. As our food and the way we buy it change, how will this crisis affect the way we eat?
I put the question to dietary historian Susan Yager, who literally wrote the book on how great historical events have influenced American eating. “Right now, it’s a complete unknown,” Yager says, given that we’ve never weathered a crisis quite like this one. “We’re in a dire economic situation, and that’s on top of a pandemic where we’re told 40% to 80% of Americans will get sick one way or another.”
Yager says of course people are panicked about running out of food—that’s human instinct. “We all need food and water, and when they’re threatened — especially by outside forces — it’s traumatic.” This is the natural first phase of a crisis, which will likely soon be over, along with the flour shortage.
As for what comes next? This is where personalities, backgrounds, and cultural differences come in. A pacifist might go on to fight world hunger. But average Americans, Yager says, tend to respond to deprivation with self-deprivation—thus, the rise in postwar diet fads that began even before rationing ended. “Even in the 1930s, when the country went through the worst depression ever known, all these crazy diets came about: bananas and skim milk, apple-only diets, lamb chop–only diets.”
Yager believes the country was seeking a sense of control during a time of dire uncertainty. “When you have control over nothing in your life, at least you can control what you’re having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even if it’s only bananas and milk.” That’s what she thought of when she saw the empty shelves in February: “People trying to make order out of chaos by getting all these cans of beans and soup, and lining them up neatly, knowing that they’re going to take care of their family.”
That’s just what we do. If history repeats itself, Yager says, “Bizarre diets will come flooding back. I would expect it.”
But really, no one knows what the world will look like when we step out into it again. All we know is it will be changed. Perhaps we will be, too.