Coronavirus Chronicles — Some Dark Expectations

In November of 1944, thanks to a government program designed to let conscientious objectors serve their country in non-violent ways, over 400 potential subjects applied to be human guinea pigs to satisfy the curiosity of physiologist (biological scientist) Ancel Keys. If the name seems familiar, this is the same fellow who later confused the world so thoroughly about the relative dangers of sugar and fat.

Thirty-six healthy young men volunteered to be seriously deprived of nutrition for a long time as part of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Only 32 stayed the course, but it would be unfair to author Kelsey Miller to reveal here the reasons for their attrition.

The research answered some of the original questions, and foreshadowed societal trends that actually did not develop until decades later. Here is Miller on the post-World War II era:

[…] unparalleled bounty juxtaposed with gnawing hunger. The diet business boomed into a multibillion-dollar industry, as average- and high-income Americans paid to go hungry. Meanwhile, millions suffered scarcity, struggling to afford food or unable to access it. Food insecurity, both genuine and self-imposed, spread like a quiet plague…

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment subjects had 3,200 calories a day for three months, to get all their baseline vital signs, measurements, and lab values established. Then came the six months of 1,570 daily calories, consisting of boring cabbage, potatoes, bean soup, and mac and cheese.

The object was to duplicate the limited diet in war-torn Europe. Of course all the dreadful conditions of war could not be imitated, and Keys did not try for that. Nevertheless, Miller writes,

His subjects exhibited the same behavior as those persecuted and starving abroad — without actually being persecuted or starved.

The object was to reduce each subject’s weight by 25% and leave him three-fourths of his former self. Miller’s description of what happened is very concerning and fairly mind-blowing, so Childhood Obesity News readers should do themselves a favor and go to the original.

The Starvation Experiment subjects were, of course, followed up on, and here is the scary part. The participants became weird, and when the war ended and prosperity reigned, their weirdness did not abate. Many of their emotional, psychological difficulties did not gradually heal, but became worse.

The point being made for us contemporary humans is: Those experimental subjects were, more or less, participating of their own accord, while millions of people today are not. The Keys experiment subjects were not sequestered, but were able go out into the world at will, and have normal relationships.

Even at the most extreme deprivation, they received more calories than have been allowed by so-called weight-loss diets in the following years. They started out optimally healthy in body and mind — while the people affected by the pandemic’s shortages and isolation began with all kinds of problems. And guess what the subjects of the experiment did?

[T]hey gained an average of 22 pounds above their starting weights, and some struggled with “abnormal eating” for years. The Minnesota subjects, Holocaust victims, adolescent anorectics, and chronic dieters all share common symptoms, despite vastly different circumstances. Our bodies don’t distinguish between a crash diet and a famine… These effects are universal and timeless — and nothing can inoculate against them.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What a 1944 Starvation Experiment Reveals About 2020 Food Insecurity,”, 04/29/20
Image by iurikothe/(CC BY 2.0)

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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