Lessons From The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

The Minnesota Starvation experiment was conducted from November 19, 1944 to December 20, 1945, at the University of Minnesota. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve read about. The study would never be done today due to ethical concerns. Let’s take a closer look to see what we can learn.

The Overview

The Context of World War II

This study was conducted during World War II in 1944. Thirty-six men as conscientious objectors were enrolled in the Civilian Public Service. Each one of them said they refused to kill another human being. As part of the civilian public service, one option came through to serve in a study at the University of Minnesota and go through semi-starvation. Here is the brochure cover:


Researchers told the men that there was no way of knowing what would happen. There could be permanent damage. The men were objectors to killing, but they still wanted to help their country and help people recover from the war. They were patriotic. And so they felt up to this difficult task.

Why were researchers doing this study?

“World War II was coming to a close, and Allied forces, entering cities in German-occupied Europe, encountered starved, emaciated civilians, many of whom had survived by subsisting on bread, potatoes, and little else. Relatively little was known scientifically about human starvation or how to deal with refeeding people who had undergone this extreme degree of deprivation.” (2005)

So researchers wanted to know what would happen as you starved and then how to recover from the starvation. The head researcher, Ancel Keys, was a consultant to the War Department, and so this information would help the Allies. It was a bombshell of a study, and it’s changed scientific on how food affected:

  • Mood and personality disorders
  • How diet could change blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate, which at that time were considered fixed/genetic
  • It was a foundational study for anything related to anorexia, muscle wasting, obesity, recovery after injuries, etc.

This study is still cited today in current research.

What Happened During The Study?

Baseline & Then Semi-Starvation

The men were brought onto campus. They started with baseline measurements and fed them 3,200 calories a day for three months. Then for six months, they fed them a starvation diet of that seen in the war—turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, whole wheat bread, etc. Only 1800 calories.

They had a 22-mile weekly walking requirement (about 5km daily) as well to make sure the weight would keep coming off.

After the six months, they went through a three-month “recovery,” and there were four different groups of different nutritional parameters to see which group recovered the best.

The men lived on campus and were fed in the cafeteria. It didn’t take long for them to start feeling weak and for the first guy to “break” diet. Four of them ended up getting kicked out. One after threatening to kill the head researcher. One after he was peeing blood. One stole and ate a few raw rutabagas, so he was out. Another admitted that he made a habit out of eating scraps he found in garbage cans and on the sidewalks. One guy got kicked out for excessive gum chewing—some men were said to be chewing 40 packs of gum a day.

So the researchers quickly made a buddy system to fix the compliance issues. But the buddy also helped as the men became weaker.

“I was in Dayton’s department store downtown going to go in. It’s got a rotating door. I couldn’t push it. I got stuck. Had to wait until somebody came along. And then the other one was, you know, the library doors. Oh you know, they’re big, and I couldn’t pull them. I had to wait until somebody … let me scoot in after.”

Side Effects From Semi-Starvation

The results as the months wore on were horrifying.

  • anemia
  • depression
  • loss of mental power
  • loss of humour or the ability to laugh
  • fatigue
  • apathy
  • extreme weakness
  • sunken faces
  • hair loss
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • brownish pigments around the mouth
  • cyanosis (blueish/reddish hands)
  • dry and thin skin
  • irritability
  • inability to sleep through the night
  • neurological deficits
  • loss of cold tolerance (using blankets in the summer, wanting to take hot showers all the time, etc.)
  • no sex drive
  • introversion (spending more and more time alone)
  • swollen legs, feet, faces (edema)


Part of the deal was that the men could attend university classes as they were part of the study. But they were feeling so ill many lost the motivation to attend classes at all.

All of them became obsessed with food. It was all they could think or even talk about. One man bought over 100 cookbooks over the six-month period. (Some of them opened restaurants after the experiment.)

But what I found the most telling was the personality changes. They all became irritable and impatient. They started seeing the flaws in people and began hating them. I think about this story a lot:

“[My buddy and I] were tired and weak. And so we were standing at a corner waiting for a light or something, and a kid came along on a bicycle, and he was really moving, pumping away … And I looked at him and said, “Wow, look at that boy. He’s really whizzing.” And then I said to myself, “I know where he’s going. He’s going home for supper. And I’m not.” And then for a very brief, I hope it was brief, moment … I suddenly hated the boy … I hate at this point to tell you this, because it doesn’t speak very well for me. But I remember … with … horror that I could feel such a thing. So utterly irrational, but there it was. And you ask an experience that I remember; I sure remember that. That was rough.”

Jealousy, envy, hate. These are the common emotions felt from someone who was starving.

The “Recovery” Period

Reversal Of Edema

As they switched into the “recovery” period and started eating more food, they were surprised to see more weight loss at first. This was due to the fluid build-up (edema) finally being carried away and removed from the body.

“The men reported that reduced dizziness, apathy, and lethargy were the first signs of recovery, but that feelings of tiredness, loss of sex drive, and weakness were slow to improve.”

Weight Loss From Starvation Was Mainly Lean Tissue Loss

Another interesting point was during the starvation, the men didn’t even lose that much fat. They gained fluid weight but mostly lost “tissue” weight.


Tissue weight was shrinking muscles and shrinking organs. Researchers didn’t have the exact measurement, but during an X-ray, they believed the hearts of the men to shrink as correlated to the tissue weight, in the ballpark of 20-40% shrinkage.

But as the calories ramped up, so did their energy. Some of them started to get more lively and wanted out of the buddy system so that they could go back to doing fun things by themselves. The researchers only agreed after the men seemed mutinous and angry.

One of the psychologists said, “Hungry people mindlessly follow orders. You feed them enough, and right away, they demand self-government.

The main researcher, Keys, said that democracy and nation-building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.

The researchers said that their desire to fight and get back to living was a good sign that their spirits were returning.

Still Not Fully Recovered 3 Months Later

Still, after three months of eating more food, every single man agreed they were not back to normal.

12 of the 32 men stayed on campus and in the study for another eight weeks to experiment with unrestricted calories. Most were choosing to eat between 4,000 and up to 11,500 calories a day, with an average intake of around 5,200 calories a day.

They were now complaining of being hungry despite being full to the brim. During this unrestricted period, the men were finally starting to see some improvements.

Fat Gain Around The Belly

But there was a new problem. As they ate more food, they just got fatter, particularly around the belly. Their muscle tone wasn’t coming back the way it was before the experiment. Some of the men returned back to their normal weight within six months. For some of them men, it took upwards of five years of eating huge amounts to get back to normal. Some of the men never got their “control” weight back for the rest of their lives.

One man wrote:

“During this week, I regained my top control weight. However, it is certainly not in the same places as the pounds I had on me when I came to Minneapolis. My arms, thighs, buttocks, and midsection are all [fatter] than I can ever recall. My face is also fatter.”

Thankfully, four decades later, during a follow-up, many of the men remembered the experiment fondly. They were happy to participate in something so important. And most of them led happy, productive lives afterwards.

Lessons We Can Learn

So, that was a wall of text.

What does that all have to do with us? Well, sadly, I see a lot of overlap with the semi-starved men and the problems that many people are facing today.

Impatience, loss of humour, stubborn fat at the belly, hips, and face, low levels of muscle, bad sleep, bad skin, etc.

Most people you talk to would like to be a little leaner and a little stronger than they currently are. And what does every single program, trainer, and even mainstream institution like the Mayo Clinic say to do? Count calories to lose weight. Starve yourself.

I’d argue that most of these people need *more*. As one researcher puts it, we’ve all been feeding on a diet of high-calorie malnutrition. White flour, table sugar, deep-fried industrial oils, etc. The food that we eat has energy in it, sure, but it’s not nourishing. Some food (and things in the modern environment) actively cause inflammation and organ damage in our bodies.

People today need *more* nutrients like vitamins and minerals, and peptides. By eating less, they’ll get less of those things. And just like the study participants, they need to regenerate their “tissues.”

They need to regenerate their organs—which they can do by eating organs. Some grass-fed ruminant heart, pancreas, kidneys, liver, etc. To regenerate muscle, you can also eat more muscle. You know, like meat.

For someone struggling with too much fat and too little muscle, I would say instead of looking at counting calories to do a little semi-starvation, why not take a look at recovery and nourishment? How can we rebuild the body—not punish it? I cover all these sorts of techniques in the Outlive programs.

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