The Great Starvation Experiment – Todd Tucker (2006)

I am not too sure where I came upon this title, but thought it looked interesting so ended up doing an ILL. (What a great program!) This book covered a little known but true experiment done towards the end of World War II in the US, where researchers wanted to learn how to help people who had endured serious famine and starvation recover. However, where to get the human subjects?

With war comes Conscientious Objectors (COs) and so a number of them (all men, of course) signed up and went through a selection process for the year-long project. They would be systematically (and voluntarily) starved for a period of time to enable scientists to find out how best to help famine victims recover.

The Principal Investigate (PI) was Dr. Ancel Keys – he who invented the K Ration for military personnel (that later became Meals Ready to Eat/MREs).  (Keys was also going to be responsible later on for linking cholesterol with heart disease.)

Funded by the U.S. Army and located in the basement of the University of Minnesota football stadium, 36 men were chosen and invited to make their new home in the dormitory set up. There, they would have to face a nearly constant battery of medical tests (along with psychological tests as well), and fulfill the expectation of walking at least 22 miles/week – all on the honor system of not eating off the official diet. (They could walk into town where there were restaurants etc. so the temptation was there.)

Such an experiment would not be allowed now as medical ethics have evolved, but back then, it was OK. The US knew that WWII would lead to widespread famine post-war, there was a group of healthy young men (all COs) who were willing to sign up for their country and their idealism, and there was available funding.

This was really quite a fascinating story (especially during the actual starvation stage). The subjects could eat during the starvation phase of the project, but it was extremely-controlled calorie-wise and menu-wise. The average man lost 25% of his beginning body weight and the photos documenting this weight loss are dramatic. (Life magazine did a special article on the experiment towards the end when the men had lost most of their weight.)

It was also intriguing to see how the lack of fuel affected the men, both physically and mentally. One man was booted out of the experiment for cheating and eating extra food (found out as he wasn’t losing weight at the same rate as the others).  Everyone else stayed the course, although not without event. Other results also noted included hearing being more acute during starvation (perhaps from the need to hunt for food?), and intellect not being adversely affected (although the subjects reported that they felt less smart when they were hungry).

As for the end results of the project, researchers learned how to effectively help famine victims recover. Previous knowledge was that the best way to re-introduce food to a starving person was through a stomach tube. Keys’ study showed that it was important just to give them calories, not a special complicated mix of proteins, carbs and fats. Food was what they needed. (This project also helped with treatment of those with eating disorders, as those have a very similar effect on the human body as this experiment did.)

So – interesting topic. The writing? Well, at first, I wasn’t sure if I could stick with the book as the writing style was very “Dick and Jane go to class”. Very low level, but as the book progressed, I got really sucked into the story so either the writing style improved or the story was enough to carry it because it wasn’t so jarring towards the end. I am thinking that was an early project for Tucker who would, I hope, have a better grasp of writing by now.

Very interesting book about a fascinating topic. Recommended.

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One thought on “The Great Starvation Experiment – Todd Tucker (2006)

  1. Pingback: The Cholesterol Correlation – The Ancel Keys “Facts” | MalagaBay

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