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What happens to people when they starve their bodies?: Implications for eating disorders

March 10, 2010

During the end of WWII, an important study was conducted to determine the physiological and psychological impact of starvation on the human body.  There were vast implications to the study for the political climate of the times, such as how to rehabilitate those that had been starved by the war conditions.  This study was referred to as the Starvation Study, and it’s findings were published by Ancel Keys and colleagues in 1950.

The study in short

36 young men who met criteria for psychological and physical health standards were selected from a pool of 400.  After a control period in which subjects ate 3200kcal daily, their intake was then cut in half for 12 weeks.  This was considered the semi-starvation phase, in which the subjects were monitored for their behaviors under the starvation conditions.  Finally, they paricipated in an 8 week long rehabilitation stage in which they could eat whatever they wanted.

These are the behaviors they observed among the participants:

preoccupation with food, and eating rituals

increased dysphoria, depression, mood shifts, irritability, apathy

decreased libido

Binge episodes during rehabilitation stage

increased social isolation, less interest in others

impaired concentration and cognitive function

“feeling fat” during rehabilitation phase, as they focused on regaining the 25% weight loss

physiological changes: edema, hair loss, decreased metabolism, decreased hear rate, fatigue, dizziness

Do these symptoms sound familiar?

Yes!  Women who suffer from eating disorders often experience the very same host of symptoms.  They are preoccupied with food, they engage in food rituals that prolong the amount of time that they can eat, they have impaired judgment and other cognitive difficulties, they lose interest in socializing and in sex, and they suffer from the gamut of medical risks mentioned, and more.

So, what can we conclude from this?   What is most striking to me is the fact that the symptoms associated with eating disorders are actual reactions to starvation that would impact any healthy person, male or female, in a state of starvation.  This means that the key to eliminating the symptoms rests in the restoration of healthy, balanced eating.  That’s why nutritional rehabilitation is such an essential part of a good treatment for an eating disorder client.  Many of the symptoms remit as clients begin to feed themselves: they can think more clearly, they are less food obsessed, they are less likely to binge, and some of the depression may lift.  However, obviously, that does no take care of the problem altogether.  Why not?   Because clearly there is a significant difference between a person who is malnourished as a result of the devastation of war and one who chooses to starve herself willingly.  When a person suffers from an eating disorder it is as though she is imposing war conditions on herself.  Or, she may describe it as a euphoric state of absolute control, in which the need for anything is brought under mastery, eliminating the possibility of becoming vulnerable.   There is usually a richly profound story here, a complex explanation as to why this person would choose to starve herself.  And in the telling of this story lies the crux of the therapy.   Each client must tell her unique story and be completely heard and understood in order to begin the recovery process.

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