Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Semistarvation Neurosis

Starved people cannot be taught democracy. To talk about the will of the people when you aren't feeding them is perfect hogwash. Ancel Benjamin Keys, PhD.

Yesterday I had my world rocked quite a bit when I heard about the above Dr. Keys' research in the 1940's right here in my own backyard at the University of Minnesota. The research has been called The Minneosta Starvation Project and seems to be pretty widely known in most scientific circles. But what Dr. Keys learned is definitely NOT something that the public at large has been exposed to.

Dr. Keys is probably more well known as the creator of K-rations. But in the 194o's, as war was raging in Europe, he set out to study starvation, knowing that this was going to be a major issue in the world.

To set the stage, he recruited about 40 young men who were conscientious objectors to take part in the reasearch. Here's how Sandy Szwarc, food editor, writer and RN, describes it:

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day -- but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats. The calories were more than many weight loss diets prescribe and precisely what's considered "conservative" treatment for obesity today. What they were actually studying, of course, was dieting -- our bodies can't tell the difference if they're being starved voluntarily or involuntarily! Dr. Keys and colleagues then painstakingly chronicled how the men did during the 6 months of dieting and for up to a year afterwards, scientifically defining "the starvation syndrome."

What Keys and his colleagues learned is absolutely astounding! And the fact that it has never been discussed in our "billion dollar diet industry supporting media" is infuriating, to say the least. Here is Szwarc summarizing again:

As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish -- with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Keys. The men's resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were profound. So much so that Keys called it "semistarvation neurosis." The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. ­They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day). Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.

So over 60 years ago, science was telling us that "voluntary starvation" of 1,600 calories per day for otherwise healthy men produced significant physiological and psychological problems. But it doesn't end there. Read what Keys learned about these men after they were allowed to eat normally:

When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites and ate voraciously, some eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, yet never felt full. Three months after the dieting, though, none of the men had regained his former physical capacity, noted Keys. On average, the men regained to their original weights plus 10%. But the weight regain was largely as fat and their lean body mass recovered much more slowly.

This was particularly difficult for me to read because I experienced "semistarvation neurosis" for over 20 years. During that time I lost over 200 pounds (at least 5 "diets" where I lost between 30 and 60 pounds each) and wound up weighing 80 pounds more than when I started. But that's not the end of it. All through those years (and still today) I heard messages that the fat AND the physcial and psychological effects of dieting were a result of some moral failing in me...not enough discipline or will power.

I don't know what else to say about all of this. I'm still trying to recover from the sadness and anger I feel. Maybe I'll write more later when my head has caught up with my broken heart.

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