WARNING: The following article on semi-starvation may include information that may be triggering for patients in recovery. The article contains numbers from the study.

The Effects of Semi-Starvation: Recovery from an Eating Disorder with a Registered Dietitian

The Effects of Semi-Starvation in Eating Disordered Clients and Extreme Dieters mimic study from Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota.  This study demonstrated what happens when you restrict calories so low as to induce a state of semi-starvation in the body, the effects, as shown, extend long beyond the period of restriction.

Semi-starvation Study by the University of Minnesota

The following is adapted from The Effects of Starvation on Behavior: Implications for Eating Disorders by David M. Garner, Ph.D.

Ever wonder what drives the cycle of restriction and bingeing? Or the physiological changes that occur during starvation? A study conducted almost 50 years ago (published by Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota) demonstrated when happens when you restrict calories so low as to induce a state of semi-starvation in the body. The effects, as shown, extend long beyond the period of restriction.

The Semi-Starvation Study Background

36 young, healthy men cut their normal caloric intake by half for 6 months. This did result in weight loss for the men.

This was followed by a 3 month re-feeding process, during which the men were observed

The behavioral changes in the men were startling spanning both phases.

In general, the men experienced dramatic physical, psychological and social changes as a result of food restriction.

During the semi-starvation period, it was noted that:

  • Thoughts of food dominated the men’s’ lives
  • They were food obsessed.
  • They had trouble concentrating.
  • The conversations with one another centered around food.
  • Their metabolic rates decreased by 40%
  • They binged when given the opportunity. Bingeing is the body’s natural response to starvation. It’s the body’s way of trying to save someone from going too long without food.
  • Their personalities changed–they were much more apathetic and irritable, which was unlike their personality before the starvation.
  • They suffered from edema (swelling in the body)
  • They lost hair

The re-feeding process:

Once the men began the re-feeding process, they could not control their eating, because they were just so hungry! Remember, bingeing is the body’s natural response to hunger and starvation. They would often consume 8,000-10,000 calories in a day. They ate until they felt stuffed and uncomfortable. Many times, they would eat more just a short while after. This is because their brains felt their body really needed the extra fuel from being so hungry in the past. Keep in mind that before this experiment, the men ate a “normal” amount and had no history of physiological issues. It was as if the men were trying to make up for the food missed during the semi-starvation period.

Eight months later

After 8 months of the re-feeding phase, most of the men reported having returned to their normal eating habits, though some continued to show binge-eating disorder behaviors.

The connection to be made here is between habitual dieters or even extreme eating disorder individuals with people who have suffered from psychological disturbances so great as to induce these effects, or people who are starving due to other circumstances. Depression, anxiety, isolation, and a decreased ability to concentrate are all related to both of these conditions.

In more basic terms, the symptoms that might have previously been thought to be related only to eating disorders also can be seen in cases of semi-starvation.

Anorexia and Semi-starvation

This means that anorexia puts your body into a state of semi-starvation. The effects are real, and serious. Returning to a “normal” body weight is essential for a return to normal physiological, social, and physical symptoms.

YouTube video

Trigger warning for this video on semi-starvation.

This content contains graphic images that some may find disturbing.  The purpose of this video is to educate loved ones on the seriousness of semi-starvation that occurs with eating disorders.

For more information on eating disorders and how we can help you recover, please take a look at this link.  

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Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients.  Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and  Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.

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