The Minnesota Starvation Experiment – The Other Ancel Keys

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment - The Other Ancel Keys


We live in a world supersaturated with food. Eating every couple of hours is the norm for most folks. No wonder there are more people dieing from food triggered diseases (diabetes T2, obesity, other disease of the metabolic syndrome, etc) than of starvation.

Food saturation became reality only in past few decades. In fact, one of the checkpoints of food scarcity, if I may, of the 20th century is represented by the years during and immediate to WWII.

During the 1940s Ancel Keys, a scientist with degrees in economics, political science and zoology, started conducting experiments in human physiology. He was studying semi-starvation to gain “insight into the physical and psychologic effects of semistarvation and the problem of refeeding civilians who had been starved during the war” [1]. It was for a good cause from what I see.

Ancel Keys and his colleagues wanted to determine efficient strategies for the victims of famine of WWII. Their studies and experiments ended in two voluminous books of 1,400 pages [2].

Ancel Keys – The One you may Know

Most folks know Ancel Keys as the villain who misguided the whole world through his Seven Countries Study, where he examined the diets of 22 countries for a better insight on the link between cholesterol intake and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

So far, so good. The events followed a wrong way when Keys published the data only from 7 countries and not the 22; this data that would prove a linear and apparently causal relationship between cholesterol intake and CVD.

Higher cholesterol intake => more chances to develop CVD.

When other researchers wanted to see if the data Keys presented was legit, they accessed the same databases; and when they introduced the data from all the 22 countries their findings were different from Keys’.

They found no relationship between cholesterol intake and CVD [3]. The harm was already made though and everybody started following a fat-phobic dietary approach.

This is the Ancel Keys you may have heard of recently. But, now let’s meet the Keys of the 1940s. A different one…

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

In November 1944, Ancel Keys and his team of scientists recruited 36 male subjects who were between 20 and 33 years old. They were to participate in a study that would last for 1 year; the study would try to mimic the conditions of people affected by the global conflicts of those times.

These subjects were first put control diet that lasted for 3 months (phase 1). The diet aimed for about 3,500 kcals and it included, as exercise, ~20 miles of walking per week. The researchers lead by Keys wanted their subjects to lose 25% bodyweight during this initial phase.

It’s interesting how they could lose this much while overeating. Anyway, the interesting part follows in the second phase of the experiment.

This second phase lasted for 6 months. The subjects had to follow a semi-starvation diet from February 1945 until July the very same year. Another interesting note is that the semi-starvation protocol included ~1,570 kcals.

By personal reference, this is nowhere near what I would call semi-starvation, given that a certain dietary protocol is followed, such as any protocol that would promote nutritional ketosis.

The foods they consumed in this phase were similar to the ones of people who experienced the negative effects of WWII and they included: potatoes, cabbage, sugar, jam, bread, oatmeal, jello, and macaroni. They very rarely consumed minute amounts of dairy and meat [4].

The third part of the experiment was the rehabilitation phase and it lasted for 3 months, between July and October 1945. During this time the subjects consumed between 2,500 and 3,500 kcals (they were assigned to different intake groups). Some consumed more to the lower end while others consumed more to the upper end of the kcals spectrum.

Finally, the last part of the experiment was an uncontrolled rehabilitation phase; subjects could consume as much food as they wanted. Some of them went even as high as 10,000 kcals per day. That’s very difficult if you ask me and it could involve force-feeding. But it could also be because of impulsive eating triggered by the fear of hunger from the semi-starvation phase.

Keys and colleagues reported that the most dramatic changes they’ve seen in these subjects were during the semi-starvation phase. As weight went off, their physical aspect degraded.

With lower core body temperature, a poor diet, and poor heart rate variability, they lost their sex drive and stamina, and became disengaged and disinterested in many aspects of their lives.

I suspect this may not have happened had they been put on a low-calorie well formulated ketogenic diet. They may have not felt hungry at all; instead, with their strategy, many of the subjects developed obsessive thoughts about food.

“Fatigue, weakness, and hunger were outstanding complaints. The marked reduction in strength and endurance was paralleled by a curtailment of spontaneous activity. The subjects moved slowly and cautiously; they climbed stairs one at a time. Coordination was affected and the men sometimes tripped over curbstones and bumped into objects which they intended to sidestep.” [5]

They tried substituting foods with consuming enormous amounts of water, excessively chewing gum, excessive consuming coffee and tea and smoking heavily.

Call that food triggered bad habits! Some of them consumed as many as 40 packs of chewing gum (yes, packages) every day. They would chew gum until they felt the last bit of sweetness and flavor and then discharge it. Researchers had to limit chewing gum use to two packs a day.

Others consumed ~15 cups of coffee/tea per day; researchers had to input additional restrictions. It’s interesting that they weren’t allowed to use sugar to sweeten their drinks but they could consume white sugar with their meals. I would say this contributed to their insulin triggered hunger pangs and also to their obsessive food thoughts. Anyway, I think they consumed a poor diet all together.

At the beginning of the semi-starvation phase (second phase), they could spent time alone whenever they wanted. But, as their situation got worse, researchers had them accompanied by someone (a buddy) when attending events outside the research facility. This was to keep them under observation most of the time.

Some Thoughts to Ponder Upon

I refrain from judging the ethics of this experiment which is why I don’t want to go into too many details about the contents of what they ate. It seems to me that the purpose of the study deserves more importance and insight. It may be laudable to try to find efficient strategies to help the victims of war.

I will only briefly get into the specifics of what they ate because I want to provide some reference for better alternatives.

As we can see, their diets seem to focus on carbohydrates as the major macronutrient to be consumed. I’d say there’s nothing wrong with that if they would have emphasized on the consumption of complex carbs and high-fiber foods. But bread, jam, macaroni, and plain sugar…

The control phase of the study reveals that their satisfaction/satiety point with this dietary protocol is somewhere at 3,500 kcals. Imagine what these subjects experienced when being put at ~1,570 kcals/day during the semi-starvation phase.

Similarly, I usually consume between 1,400 and 1,700 kcals, with many exceptions and alterations. My diet is very-low-carb-ketogenic-moderate-to-low-protein. I eat many plant foods and little meat. I consume eggs and some dairy. I am never hungry though I am in a caloric deficit most of the time. I’ve been doing this for more than 2 years at this point.

As for these subjects, eating 1,570 kcals/day, with emphasis on refined carbohydrates, would most likely stimulate their hunger tremendously. Insulin is one of the primary drivers of hunger, along with its interplay with other hunger regulating factors.

These subjects were not efficiently tapping into their adipose tissue. They, most likely, never entered ketosis and they may have also catabolized muscle mass as a result. This could explain their significantly low-quality physiologic and psychologic states.

Sadly, this experiment is the opposite of what a prolonged fasting experiment would lead to. The subjects of the Minnesota Experiment felt much hungrier that an average person who would undergo water-only fasting for days at length. In fact, during prolonged fasting (more than 48 hours), hunger is the least of problems. Most people don’t feel hungry as long as they are in ketosis and as long as they have sufficient body fat to fuel this state.


The study ends by saying that it took the subjects a lot of time and force-feeding (prolonged over-consumption of food) to return their physiology to baseline. Many of them developed life-long food convictions and habits.

I wrote about this study in Periodic Fasting as well; and after this section I continued with an analysis of George Cahill’s work on obesity and prolonged fasting [6]. To keep this article fairly short, I’d rather have you continue reading in the book; of course, only if you’re interested in knowing more about the difference between calorie restriction on a poor diet, IF and calorie restriction combined, prolonged fasting, and other similar strategies.


  1. Kalm, L. M., & Semba, R. D. (2005). They starved so that others be better fed: remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota experiment. The Journal of nutrition, 135(6), 1347-1352.
  1. Wikipedia (2015). The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Retrieved from Wikipedia.
  1. Yerushalmy, J., & Hilleboe, H. E. (1957). Fat in the diet and mortality from heart disease; a methodologic note. New York State journal of medicine, 57(14), 2343-2354.
  1. Baker, D. & Keramidas, N. (2013). The Psychology of Hunger.
  1. Franklin J. C., Scheile, B. C., & et., a. (1948). Observations on human behavior in experimental semi-starvation and rehabilitation. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 4(1), 28-45.
  1. Cahill Jr, G. F. (2006). Fuel metabolism in starvation. Annu. Rev. Nutr., 26, 1-22.

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