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Minnesota Experiment on Starvation

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The Minnesota Experiment on Starvation

As World War II waged on around the world, millions of people all across Europe went without food; many on the brink of starvation. Either the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children targeted for extermination due to purely race; or the brave soldiers dedicating their lives for the righteous cause of freeing them. In the center of the fight, rations were tough to come by for soldiers and even harder for refugees and prisoners. As the people fled Europe and the soldiers returned home to the states, the malnutrition and state of starvation was apparent. The demand was at an all time high for the fastest, most effective way to nurse millions back to health.
Dr. Ancel Keys, who ran the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota; took note of the epidemic and was eager to help. Keys’ in depth interest in nutrition and already being well regarded for developing the combat rations carried by American troops- wanted to help find a solution. Keys idea in mind was to perform a yearlong starvation study divided into three parts: a pre experiment; three month period, where the food intake of the participants would be monitored and regulated at normal levels. Then followed by a six month starvation period with strictly controlled food portions kept at a bare minimum. Finally followed by the last three crucial months of re-introducing food at different levels to determine the best method.
Keys knew finding men to lend themselves to the dauntless study would be difficult find. The recruitment brochure for the experiment’s cover was that of three children staring at empty bowls with the words, “Will you starve so they are better fed?” Keys' specifically deigned the brochure to target the morals of men known as conscious objectors. These men did not participate in the war either for religious reasons or for joining an alternative public service. Despite the experiment being such a grueling, consuming test with no reward or pay involved- the outcome of response from men willing to serve as test subjects was highly successful. Keys’ received over 400 applications from men eager to devote themselves to science.
Sorting through the applications of all the possible applicants, Keys’ wanted to make sure that he chose the right men for the study. Keys’ saw this as a very important task to establish the best candidates capable to undergo the highly physical and mental demanding intensity experiment. Keys’ dedicated many hours to thoroughly and carefully screening every applicant. Out of the 400 applicants, Keys’ found and chose thirty-six men he saw best suited for the experiment and sent out acceptance letters.
The men arrived in Minneapolis in November, and found their way to Keys' Laboratory beneath the university football stadium. In only a single day, they would be starting the experiment together. Entering into the experiment, all of the men held strong differencing views in moral, political, and religious aspects and it was easily apparent disagreements might occur because of this. Despite their differences, the thirty-six men took up residence in the large, dorm style room to have their every action controlled, monitored and tested.
The day after the men arrived, the beginning part of the experiment was on its way. Keys’ began the standardized portion of collecting data for each of the men and for the next twelve weeks, the men would be evaluated and fed a healthy, average of 3,200 caloric intake a day. One of the guidelines Keys’ had in place for all the participants was for each of the men to maintain a healthy, strong exercise regimen. Part of the regimen included that the men walk a healthy bare minimum of 22 miles every week. Keys’ wanted to make sure the experiment was an accurate as possible mirroring that of what soldiers in Europe were possibly walking weekly.
Twelve weeks in to the experiment, it was then time for Keys’ to drop the food intake of their diets. Suddenly, Keys’ dropped the intake of the group down to half of what they were averagely consuming and should be eating to maintain. The men were now eating only 1,570 calories a day, and still required to maintain their exercise regimen. The men knew it was safe to say the starvation part of the experiment was beginning. The main purpose of the experiment being how to revive the starving people in Europe; Keys’ starved the experimental group on a diet of strictly, easily accessible European food. The men were served just two meals a day, both weighed and carefully prepared to consist of the most likely diets in Europe. All their meals being potatoes, macaroni, bread and cabbage: High in starch and carbohydrate content and very low in protein. Each of the men’s starting weight at the beginning of the experiment averaged 155 pounds. All of the men were considered of average size, weight and build. On two meals a day during the starvation phase of the diet, the men very soon began to shed pounds and energy. Rather quickly, each of the men began to complain excessively, and repeatedly of feeling tired and weak. The participants also complained of feelings such as feeling old and fragile. During this period, the men’s strength also decreased rapidly: losing 21 percent in muscle mass.
The intensity of the effects caused by starvation was beginning to prove painfully bothersome. The participants began to grow highly agitated at the slightest bit of change or differences. The men began to expect the food to arrive at the exact time everyday, or else they’d grow furious and throw tantrums. Even though the food was bland and flavorless, the men savored every last bite and always licked the plate clean as if it were the most delicious meal they’ve ever eaten. Most of the time, the men tried to extend their portions by adding water to their plates, only giving the perception of more food. This technique is known as ‘souping’. Some men would even stare at cookbooks for hours as entertainment just imagining being able to eat the scrumptious food.
Food became all they could ever think or talk about. Food was their number one priority; news, current events, and even their prior strongly held views all became faded and meant next to nothing to them compared to food. Although their food was heavily monitored and limited; Keys did allow the men unlimited amounts of certain few items. The men were allowed to consume unlimited amounts of chewing gum, water and coffee. These items were devoured at rapid speeds; chewing gum being eaten at copious amounts of up to 40 packs in a single day. All of the men being average size to begin with, even the small aspect of unlimited chewing gum did not stop the men from growing emaciated and boney.
During the starvation, not only agitation and grouchiness arose as an issue among the men, but another more intense psychological factor effected a couple of the men. One man expressed to Dr. Keys’ that he was frequently having vivid dreams of cannibalizing a man. For the safety of the experiment Keys’ dismissed him to a mental institution to be evaluated and then released home. Another man had a complete mental breakdown and threatened to kill Keys’, he was also dismissed. Besides the serious mental health issues two men were dismissed for, Keys was forced to dismiss 3 other men for cheating on the experiment as they would sneak off and gobble up sundaes and milkshakes. After finding out that men were abusing their freedom to cheat, Keys’ implied a buddy system to ensure truthfulness and honesty for the remaining time of the experiment.
Almost a quarter of their previous body weight, at the end of the starvation; the men dropped from 155 pounds to 115 pounds. The physical changes the men experienced during starvation was decreased heart rates, eyes whitening due to the shrinking blood vessels’ and their limbs swelling from excessive water intake. The men also developed better hearing due to less earwax and shrinking ear canals. Strangely, as the men became emaciated to the point of nothing but skin and bones, none of the men perceived them selves as the ones with the weight complex. Instead, they felt everyone looked excessively obese. If you ask the men the most bothersome part of the experiment, they expressed the pain and discomfort they experienced from trying to sit or lay down with their bones protruding as much as they were.
As the last day of the six-month starvation period came to an end, the men were restless and excited to finally begin receiving normal sized meals again. Keys’ experiment to determine what rehabilitation method works best all came down to this stage. Keys’ divided the men into four groups based on each group receiving differing amounts of additional calories. Keys divided the men into either: 400 additional calories, 800 additional calories, 1200 additional calories, or 1600 additional calories. After feeding the men their new diets few a few weeks, Dr. Ancel Keys never did receive any positive results. Keys’ realized there was no success and tried to aide the men with additional vitamins, but still saw no changes. After all of limited methods ending up un-successful, keys then decided the increase all of the men’s diets by a hefty additional 800 calories and then finally saw the results he was looking for.
Dr. Ancel Keys’ came to the conclusion that the quickest way to rehabilitating the war survivors was to fed them as much as possible and the more they ate the faster they would recover. When the men of the experiment returned back to their normal lives, they claimed to only experience minor lasting effects of the experiment. Some men claimed that they wanted to hold onto a lot more food and have food always readily available for a number of years after the experiment. The experiment really gives credit to the brave men for sacrificing themselves to starvation for an entire year for the betterment of others. It is always one thing when you’re taking place in a controlled experiment compared to starving in an uncontrolled environment. For the men taking part of the experiment, it was much easier to hold onto their humanity during the starvation process. The experiment group knew in fact it was only an experiment and would soon return back to their normal lives. It would be much harder to maintain your true fair, humane self, when you are indeed fighting for your life. Every man pushed to the brink of pure starvation, will eventually inhibit wilder means to survive. If it wasn’t for the dedicated scientists and the people who’ve dedicated their lives to discover answers for the people in need, I don’t believe we would truly know as much about our humanity as we do.

Works cited

Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O. & Taylor, H.L. (1950) The Biology of Human Starvation, Vols. I-II. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN. <;jsessionid=CD12C35450F7F1C1EFDE1730131DEF60>

“Men Starve in Minnesota” (July 30, 1945) Life Magazine: 43-46 <

"They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment." History of Nutrition. The Journal of Nutrition, 5 June 2005. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

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