Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Starvatoin Study

While I was in treatment, I was given a handout called, The Effects of Starvation on Behavior: Implications for Dieting and Eating Disorders, - also known as "The Keys Study" - written by David Garner. During that time, I was in such a state of shock that I found it difficult to actually let the information in this article sink in. After rereading and picking it apart for my research paper this semester, I am blown away by the amount of useful information I picked up over these few short pages. 

In 1950 Ancel Keys and his colleagues did an experiment known as the “starvation study.” Out of 100 volunteers, 36 men with the best physical and psychological health were chosen for the this study. It consisted of three main phases: 

Phase one - The men ate normally while their behaviors and eating habits were recorded.
Phase two - The semi-starvation phase consisted of a strict diet; cutting daily caloric intake in half, for the next six months. Exercise and other mental tests were also done during this time. On average, the men lost about 25% of their starting body weight.
Phase three - After the semi-starvation phase, the men where carefully studied during a three month re-feeding process. 

Gardner goes on to discuss the many different ways the men responded to the weight loss, and to his astonishment, many of these symptoms or changes persisted through the rehabilitation phase. 

Behaviors Related to Food & Eating

An extremely common symptom of an eating disorder is an obsession with food. Gardner discusses how the men were affected:
"One of the most striking changes that occurred in the volunteers was a dramatic increase in food preoccupation. The men found concentration on their usual activities increasingly difficult, because they became plagued by incessant thoughts of food and eating. During the semi-starvation phase, food became a principal topic of conversation, reading, and daydreams.
Cookbooks, menus, and information bulletins on food production became intensely interesting to many of the men who previously had little interest in dietetics or agriculture. In addition, some men even began collecting coffeepots, hot plates, and other kitchen utensils.
For some, the fascination was so great that they actually changed occupations after the experiment; three became chefs!"
The first couple sentences of this quote are true for many people with eating disorders. It becomes extremely difficult to concentrate on anything except food. I remember feeling like my brain was constantly in a fog, making it very difficult to absorb information. 

For all of the jokes that have ever been made about me going to culinary school during the height of my eating disorder, there is now an explanation. Countless people have pointed out the irony in my previous situation, myself included.  The only way I could make sense of it was by thinking, "I already thought about food 24/7, so what not study it?!" Well, I am thrilled that there is actually proof that I am not crazy! 

Binge Eating

A major consequence of starvation is binge eating. Anyone who has been on a highly restrictive diet, not just those with eating disorders, can relate to this. Gardner explains,
"During the eighth week of starvation, one volunteer flagrantly broke dietary rules, eating several sundaes and malted milks; he even stole some penny candies. He promptly confessed the whole episode, [and] became self-deprecatory. Serious binge eating developed in a subgroup of men, and this tendency persisted in some cases for months after free access of food was reintroduced; however, the majority of men reported gradually returning to eating normal amounts of food after about 5 months of re-feeding."
After restricting caloric intake for any period of time, the normal reaction is to binge; whether we realize that is what is taking place or not. The body craves food and will do whatever it takes to consume those missing calories. These men were no different. Often, during the re-feeding stage of recovery, patients complain of extreme hunger and feel like binging, and this is why. 

For me personally, this is how my binge/purge cycle began. As early as my freshman year in high school, I remember starting a diet every Monday, only to end up binging all weekend long. Monday morning the diet would start again and the cycle would continue. The amount of guilt I felt lead me to diet. Learning to purge only made the cycle a million times worse.

Emotional & Personal Changes

My personality and emotional well being at this very moment are completely different than they were a year, even six months ago; thank goodness. Again, Gardner explains,
"During the re-feeding period, emotional disturbance did not vanish immediately but persisted for several weeks, with some men actually becoming more depressed, irritable, argumentative, and negativistic than they had been during semi-starvation."
In my opinion, this is a really important concept for outsiders and people with loved ones in recovery from an eating disorder to understand. Although a patient is weight restored and they physically look 'cured,' it does not mean they are. Like the quote states, often times, the mental state of a person in recovery is actually worse after weight restoration. 

In my situation, during this phase of recovery, it felt impossible to deal with two things: (1) The recent weight gain and hideous body image and (2) all of the unpleasant emotions I had been numbing with my eating disorder were now hitting me with full force. Without my go-to coping mechanism (ED behaviors), I was forced to deal with all of my underlying issues at once; I cannot think of a more overwhelming feeling. 

This article also goes into detail about the social/sexual changes and the cognitive/physical changes that take place as a result of starvation. The three listed above, however, stood out to me as the most prominent in eating disorder recovery (and I didn't want to bore you with more scientific research). If you are interested in the full text of the "starvation study," I found a link here.

All of this information is beyond fascinating; but for me, to be able to reread this article six months after leaving treatment and noticing all of the positive changes in my brain function is unreal. I can't wait to see how much more improvement takes place over the next six months.



  1. Kelsi,
    It gives me hope to think about the body as a finely-tuned machine, always searching for balance. You can either give it that with food and healthy living, or you can constantly fight your own body, often times resulting in the binge- purge - restriction cycle. This post made me think about how Awe-inspiring the human body really is. Thanks for enlightening me, even though I have seen this article a thousand times throughout treatment. Also, one question: Does the hideous body image from weight gain and flood of emotions from blocking them with the ED ever go away?

    Thanks for the constant inspiration,

    1. Hey Sarah,
      I have also seen this article a million times, but seem to get something new out of it every time. You are right, the human body is AMAZING. And to answer your question, yes I have found that my body image now is actually better than it was while I was sick... Not everyday of course, but I don't know anyone who is 100% satisfied with their body, either. Deal with emotions and past struggles might be a lifelong battle, but I definitely feel like I can manage them wayyy better now! Give it time and tons of patience.

  2. I love this post! As I have been affected by my distorted thinking, I sometimes feel going back and forth between my re-feeding and restricting. When I increase the intake amount of foods, I feel so full and don't want to eat anymore. But when I don't eat, I go for some extra foods (I have a meal plan everyday). I usually grab something in the middle of night. Maybe, my body is hungry whether I am conscious or not. Thank you so much for your inspirational posts (not only this one, but many others!) xoxo, Kyoko

    1. It is amazing how the body will find a way to get the calories it needs, no matter what. I struggle to understand why that has become something to feel guilty about. Listening to our bodies will take time, but it can definitely happen! Thanks for your kind words, like always!! :) xo

  3. Kelsi,

    I do feel guilty and failing when I mess up my food. It is something to do with perfectionism and self-criticism. I have a certain way in my mind how everything should go in life, and how I am supposed to do/be. When I can't do/be that way, I feel that I am not doing right. My rigidness and black/white thinking cause me to go into my vicious cycle of overeating/binging and restricting. I add exercising to it because I can't throw up, but I can go into exercising bulimia. I have been a lot better, but am still working on lots of issues along with food.

    1. That is something that takes time. Lots of time. I also still struggle with this sometimes, but the sooner you can accept that nothing will ever be perfect, the better you will feel. Treat yourself with kindness and respect. You deserve it!

  4. Such a smart little cookie you are! Love you girl and keep on keepin' on!

    1. Haha you're adorable, Kenzie. Thank you, dear. :)

  5. Fascinating study Kelsi. And really, so logical when you stand back a bit. Reminds me of a short story called Guns before Butter by Kurt Vonnegut from his collection called Armageddon in Retrospect. It's about several WW2 American prisoners of war and their German guard...a lot like Hogan's heroes in their humor. (Ask your dad.....) And they spend their days dreaming of food and verbally going over recipes. Now I'm sure it's based on reality. Here is a link I found to the whole story. I listened to it as a an audiobook a few months ago and enjoyed it. Wasn't more than 10 minutes long. Aunt Judy.

  6. That was also a fascinating read, Aunt Judy. Thank you for passing it along! I find all of this stuff fascinating, so feel free to pass along anything else you might come across. :)