Minnesota Starvation Diet

Minnesota Starvation Diet

In 1944 and 1945 36 Conscience Objectors (CO) were recruited to participate in what is the seminal study of weight loss and starvation. I call it the Seminal Study because it is unlikely another could ever be repeated, The study commonly referred too as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” (Kalm & Semba, 2005) was conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys and was published in “the Journal of Nutrition” and in a separate monograph of approximately 1,100 pages. The study is seminal because it is almost impossible to imagine that a University Institutional Review Committee (IRC) would ever approve anything like it again. In fact it is difficult to believe that even in 1944 this study was ever devised let alone carried out.

First some background. During WWII the country had approximately 77,000 , non-imprisoned CO’s. This number was divided into thirds. Approximately 33% went to the military in non-combat positions, non-combat being a relative term. In this context they are often assigned to be medics, truck drives etc. While they may not have been combat specific several were placed in live fire areas. Approximately 33% were assigned to work in areas of best service to the nation. These individuals were ultimately assigned to areas such as fire jumpers, and farm improvement projects. Then the remainder were often assigned to civil employment that was in some way complementary to the war effort. Many of these areas overlapped and a few sentenced to prison were later granted release to other areas, but more likely a person assigned one of the other areas would be sent to prison for non or perceived noncompliance with their assigned duties.

Regardless of assignment we should recognize that anyone who chose this path had a very difficult way to go. Most of those who were not assigned military support duty were placed in camps where, in order to avoid imprisonment they had to pay for their food, clothing and housing. This was offset by individuals and churches who contributed heavily to support those who chose this type of service. In addition, the majority of these men were held in this situation until 1947 when the CO program was dissolved nearly 2 years after the war was over.

This brings us to the difficult decisions some men made to join medical studies. Two in particular are egregious. One is a lice study in which CO’s were recruited to wear lice in infested clothing in order to study the transmission of Typhus which is a byproduct of louse consumption of human skin (Bateman-House, 2009). And the Minnesota Starvation Diet (Kalm & Semba, 2005). In both cases CO’s were recruited and volunteered for the study, please do not get a poor opinion of modern trials. Volunteers were enticed because each was relieved of the burden of paying their own way while in the study.

The starvation experiment first fed the men pretty much a routine GI diet with no sanctions for over eating. Then the men were cut back to a 1,700 calorie diet but were required to walk or run approximately 22 miles per day. This simulated deprivation, and as time went food rations per man were reduced at almost weekly or in some times more frequent intervals. Over time most men in the study began experiencing extreme effects of starvation. Some of the more interesting affects included psychological issues, inability to perform the required physical tasks, or even worse.

In some cases men were taking as much as 2 hours to each even very small quantities of food. One man began chewing up to 40 packages of chewing gum per day (200 pieces). In most cases men began concocting their own recipes made from prepared food in order to improve taste or satisfaction. All of these were volunteers and believed they were serving their country. They were told that the experiment would the armed forces determine how long men could survive in deprivation conditions while fighting.

The bottom line is that starvation traits continued (ie, savoring food, odd combinations of food, heavy use of spice) lasted long after the starvation study was complete. Ultimately the psychological impact outlasted the physical impact of the study by many years. Each study participant was given a six month unwinding period following up to 6 months of deprivation. A few, about 10% of the participants were committed to mental institutions; one had to be dismissed after he broke into stored food in a shop in which he was working. One had to be dismissed for stealing garbage and excess food from the university.

The take away? We have to be careful should we embark on an idea of losing to much weight to fast without proper medical supervision. This study formed modern ideas about Bulimia and Anorexia s well as information about choices we are all embedded with even today. Here are a couple of really good web sites about the study if you care to look. One thing to remember is that by the time most of the research was done the war winding down, but the concentration camps were not yet liberated. It was a controversial time and a controversial study. This list includes comments about one Canadian situation regarding aboriginal tribes and food consumption. It is all very interesting.





Bateman-House, A. (2009). Men of peace and the search for the perfect pesticide: conscientious objectors, the Rockefeller Foundation, and typhus control research. Public Health Rep, 124(4), 594-602.

Kalm, Leah M., & Semba, Richard D. (2005). They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(6), 1347-1352.



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