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Minnesota Starvation Experiment

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1944-45, conscientious objectors signed up to be guinea pigs in an experiment to test the physical and psychological effects of prolonged food deprivation. A major goal of the study was to find out how to safely re-feed the starving masses of people the Allies expected to find once the war was over in Europe.

Call for Volunteers

As a Quaker, 26-year-old Marshall Sutton was a dedicated pacifist, he was also a patriotic American who wanted to do something to help his country when it was at war.

He told the BBC’s Janet Ball, “I wanted to identify with the suffering in the world at that time . . . I wanted to put myself in a little danger.”

He stumbled on a brochure with a picture of a child on the front. The brochure asked the question, “Will you starve that they be better fed?”

Sutton was among the hundreds of men who answered “Yes,” and he became one of the 36 chosen for the experiment.

Experiment at University of Minnesota

In November 1944, the three dozen volunteers were assembled at the University of Minnesota under the guidance of nutrition expert Ancel Keys. For three months, they were fed a diet appropriate for their weight to establish baselines of their health status.

The average participant was fed 3,200 calories a day.

Then, the rations of the volunteers were cut dramatically. They got two meals a day. There was no meat and a typical serving was cabbage and turnips, washed down with a glass of milk; the next day, it might be beans and rye bread.

The calorie count was kept at about 1,500 daily. In addition, the men had to run or walk 22 miles (36 km) a week.

This tough regimen lasted for six months and caused participants to lose about a quarter of their body weight.

Effects of Calorie Deprivation

After half a year of living on a starvation diet, subjects became gaunt and emaciated. Rib cages stuck out prominently and legs were as thin as arms had been. There was also anemia and fatigue.

According to The Journal of Nutrition “They experienced dizziness . . . muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears.”

Psychologically, the volunteers also often exhibited irritability, depression, and anxiety, and all sexual impulses vanished.

They suffered from mood swings and Sutton said “I had a very close friend there and often I’d speak sharply to him and I’d find myself going to him almost every night and apologising.”

A University of Minnesota report notes that “These men were so consumed by how hungry they were that all they thought about was food. They would go to restaurants just so they could smell the food.”

A surprisingly small number of men, just three, dropped out of the experiment, a few others cheated and grabbed illicit food only to suffer pangs of guilt.

In the recovery phase, which lasted three months, the men were given different increases in calories and studied to see how each responded. Throughout this period the men were still obsessed with thoughts of food.

And, says U of M: “After the experiment was complete and they could eat whatever they wanted, many men ate as many as 10,000 calories a day. All the men gained their weight back and most of them gained 10 percent more than their starting weight.”

The project came too late to help with providing nutrition to emaciated concentration camp inmates such as these men in Ebensee, Austria.

The project came too late to help with providing nutrition to emaciated concentration camp inmates such as these men in Ebensee, Austria.

Work Is Still Relevant

The scale of starvation the Allies encountered at the end of World War II was overwhelming, and the results of the Minnesota study came too late to help.

Sadly, the world has experienced plenty of mass starvation since so the work done in the mid-1940s has been, and continues to be, useful.

It is also helpful in treating people struggling with eating disorders.

Late in 1945, Ancel Keys gave a speech that included some early clues as to how best to re-feed malnourished people: “Enough food must be supplied to allow tissues destroyed during starvation to be rebuilt . . . our experiments have shown that in an adult man no appreciable rehabilitation can take place on a diet of 2,000 calories a day. The proper level is more like 4,000 daily for some months. The character of the rehabilitation diet is important also, but unless calories are abundant, then extra proteins, vitamins, and minerals are of little value.”

Keys also had advice for those working today in trying to mend failed states. He said the psychological damage caused by starvation makes democracy and nation-building virtually impossible in a population that doesn’t have sufficient food.

Men and Hunger

The complete report of the experiment, entitled The Biology of Human Starvation, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1950.

However, in 1946 a guidebook for aid workers, Men and Hunger, was released. In it the following advice was given:

  • Show no partiality, and refrain from arguments; the starving are ready to argue on little provocation, but they usually regret it immediately;
  • Informing the group what is being done, and why, is just as important as getting things done―billboards are the easiest way;
  • Starvation increases the need for privacy and quiet―noise of all kinds seems to be very bothersome and especially so during mealtimes;
  • Energy is a commodity to be hoarded―living and eating quarters should be arranged conveniently; and,
  • A thoughtful worker will make use of the fact that the starving are emotionally affected by the weather―some special and cheerful activities might be saved for bad days.

The experiment could not be carried out today because it would transgress all sorts of ethical guidelines that have been put in place since.

Bonus Factoids

  • Dr. Ancel Keys developed a ready-to-eat food package for U.S. soldiers to use in World War II. The meals were named after him and became famous as K-rations. The food was largely rated as “better than nothing” and did not survive the end of hostilities.
K-rations included an essential nutritional supplement - Chesterfield cigarettes.

K-rations included an essential nutritional supplement - Chesterfield cigarettes.

  • WebMD notes that in Jenny Craig’s diet program, clients eat “weekly menus of 70 different pre-packaged foods, at least at first. You’ll get about 1,200 calories a day, depending on your height and weight;” that’s 300 calories less than given to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment subjects during the food reduction phase of their test.
  • According to The Twin Cities Pioneer Press, “The test subjects became obsessed with food. They collected cookbooks, recipes, and kitchen gadgets and had nightmares about cannibalism.”


  • “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.” Janet Ball, BBC World Service, January 19, 2014.
  • “The Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment.” University of Minnesota, undated.
  • “Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Starvation Study.” The Mann Lab, 2012.
  • “They Starved so that Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.” Leah M. Kalm and Richard D. Semba, Journal of Nutrition, June 2005.
  • “70 Years Ago, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment Changed Lives.” Richard Chin, Twin Cities Pioneer Press, November 15, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor