In 1944 our good buddy Ancel Keys actually did something useful. He wanted to see the effects of starvation on healthy individuals. The reason for this was because the war was causing many to suffer from food shortages and he wanted to see what this would look like and what would happen when they were able to feed adequately again.
He took a group of 36 healthy men that were selected for their perceived ability to withstand the physical and mental demands of the study. They were tested mentally and physically prior to the study and all were deemed fit and healthy. The study would be broken down into 3 phases.
The Control period. This 3 month period all men were fed 3200 calories of a typical european diet. All men maintained their ideal weights with a few exceptions. Several of the men were a few pounds shy of their ideal. They lost weight eating 3200 cals. They were again tested mentally and physically and were deemed fit to continue. During this period the men were given physical jobs and made to walk at least 22 miles per week.
The Starvation period. This 6 month period involved having the men dramatically reduce their calories to a “starvation level”. I will save the amount of calories they ate until the end for suspense. During the period the men were made made to continue their jobs as well as the 22 miles of walking per week. Their meals were prepared for them and were designed to be carbohydrate rich and protein and fat poor. This would mimic what the post war Europeans would have to deal with.
The effects of the calorie restriction was seen quickly. They had a dramatic reduction of strength and energy and were constantly cold and tired. Keys measured a 21 percent decrease in strength using a back lift dynamometer. Apathy was the next thing to take hold. All the men had strong political views but they no longer had any interest. The only thing they cared about was food. Meal time became the focus of the day and many of them obsessively read and collected recipes. Between meals the men were allowed to chew gun and drink coffee. Some men were noted to chew up to 40 packs of gum a day and down as much as 15 cups of coffee to try to appease their hunger. Even though these men were chosen for their mental fortitude, cheating became a huge issue as all of the men were so obsessed with food. Keys had to implement a buddy system where the men were not allowed to leave the lab without someone with them to ensure they didn’t cheat.
The stress proved too much for one of the men, twenty-four-year-old Franklin Watkins. He began having vivid, disturbing dreams of cannibalism in which he was eating the flesh of an old man. On trips into town (before the buddy system had been implemented), he cheated extravagantly, downing milk shakes and sundaes. Finally Keys confronted him, and Watkins broke down sobbing. Then he grew angry and threatened to kill Keys and take his own life. Keys immediately dismissed Watkins from the experiment and sent him to the psychiatric ward of the university hospital. There, after a few days on a normal diet, Watkins appeared entirely normal again, so the hospital released him. Watkins’ breakdown occurred just a few weeks into the starvation phase of the experiment.
There were many physiological effects besides the psychological effects. Their heart rate slowed dramatically from 55 beats per minute to just 35 as their metabolism slowed. They lost their sex drive. Their blood volume decreased by ten percent and their hearts reduced in size. Despite the amount of water and coffee they were drinking they developed severe edema where their knees, ankles and faces swelled. They would no longer bleed if they cut themselves shaving and the cuts took longer to heal. One of the more startling effects was the whitening of their eyeballs. As the blood volume reduced the veins in the eyes would shrink making the eyes look pearly white and glassy. They looked like the fake eyes of a porcelain doll. I have heard this described by a vegan as a benefit of being vegan. “My eyes are so white and clear because of how clean my food is.” This is not a good thing. It is a reduction of blood flow to the eye which could result in severe issues. One of the few positive reported effects of the starvation was heightened senses. This would be as a result of the cortisol and epinephrine spikes. These are meant to allow a person to be able to hunt to potentially stop starving. It also results in greater lean mass loss due to increased gluconeogenesis. Many of you will recognize this one, hair loss. The men all found that they could pull handfuls of hair out very easily.
All of the men lost weight quickly in the beginning but the weight loss slowed week after week until it came to a complete stop. Some of the men started to regain some weight despite continuing the starvation. Keys was insistent that they were cheating but it could not be proven. The metabolic rates of the men where tested at the end of the study and all of the men had an nearly a 50% reduction in basal metabolic rate. Their metabolisms had adjusted to meet their caloric intake in order to keep them from wasting away to nothing. By the end of the study, even though the men were almost skeletal, they did not find they looked skinny. They actually now thought normal sized people looked fat. This is similar to the mentality of someone afflicted with Anorexia Nervosa.
The Recovery phase. All of the men were very excited for this to come but it was noted that the manic behavior and depression did not stop immediately with the increased food intake. It took a full 3 months for the men to return to “their old selves”. Their calories were gradually increased in order to determine what level they started to feel better. It was found that nearly 4,000 calories were required to recover a man’s vitality and feeling of well being. Even with this many of the men said they never felt satisfied and would later indulge in as much as 11,500 calories a day to feel satiated. All of the men regained all of their weight plus more. What was the most interesting was the body fat of the men that got back to their starting weight was as much as 10% more at the end of recovery. They had all lost significant lean mass that was not regained with the weight. This is the real danger of caloric restriction. With the loss of lean mass comes an even greater reduction in metabolic rate. With that lean mass not coming back you can never fully recover to your original metabolic rate.
It was truly apparent from this study that severe caloric restriction was a truly harmful state in every possible way and should be avoided at all cost. Now as promised I will let you in on how many calories they were actually eating in this starvation study.
It was 1500-1600 calories for a man of an average weight of 152 pounds. They maintained this weight eating 3200 cals a day.
This is why I get so disgusted at the constant recommendations for people to eat 1200 cals a day. In 1944 it was deemed dangerous to eat 1600 cals a day yet today we have doctors and dieticians recommending this like it is a walk in the park. This terrible practice needs to end. I am more than convinced that all of the thyroid, adrenal, chronic fatigue and chronic pain issues like fibromialgia are caused by this chronic state of starvation. Just because we are eating keto does not make us immune to these issues. Just because you are not hungry does not mean you don’t need to provide your body with the fuel it needs. All of the physiological effects are not a result of hunger. They are a result of inadequate nutrition. The loss of hunger is simply a biochemical response to having adequate fat. So long as you have adequate fat you will not feel hunger and the lack of hunger allows you to be clear headed and be a more effective hunger so you can stop starving. Being hungry or not hungry does not determine your nutritional requirements.
Please stop the starvation. Feed your body. Heal your body. Eat sensibly. CommonSensibly. 🙂
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