Fitness Competitions and The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.
Restricting food intake is the number one cause of eating disorders. NEDA reports that ‘35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.1
But why is this the case?
In 1944, a study was conducted that documented the effects of following a restrictive diet. This was the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Led by Dr Ancel Keys, a team of researchers set out to find the most effective methods of rehabilitation for the millions of people who experienced starvation during the Second World War.
They did this by restricting the diets of 36 young, healthy, male volunteers for a period of 6 months.
The study found that externally induced starvation led to various psychological and physiological changes. These changes are typical of what might occur when we engage in extreme or chronic dieting.
As a former Pro Bikini Competitor, I experienced similar effects when severely reducing my calorie intake in preparation for the stage. This eventually led to a full blown relapse into anorexia nervosa.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was in three parts:
- 3 month control phase, during which the men ate normally
- 6 months of semi-starvation
- 3 months of re-feeding
During the first stage, the daily calorie intake was approximately 3500kcal. This was then halved to 1570kcal in the second, semi-starvation phase.
Likewise, achieving the lean competition physique involves being in a calorie deficit for a long period of time. For the average woman, the recommended daily intake is 2000kcal.2 When preparing for a competition, however, this can drop almost to 1000kcal. This is the figure established by The World Health Organization as ‘the border of semi-starvation.’3
The Minnesota Experiment’s protocol required participants to lose 25% of their body weight during the process (an average of 37lbs.)4 This meant sustaining a weekly weight loss of approximately 2.5lb.
Aside from obvious external indicators such as sunken faces and protruding ribs, the men experienced:
- decreases in body temperature
- low blood pressure
- decreased heart rate
- decreased metabolic functioning.
These symptoms can also arise when preparing for a fitness competition. Striving to attain the extreme aesthetic requirements causes various physical afflictions. These closely resemble the symptoms of starvation since the lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition.
This produces dysfunctions that affect multiple organs within the cardiovascular, gastro intestinal, endocrine, skeletal, and central nervous systems.5
As well as causing physical illness, reduced caloric intake also leads to psychological depletion. The Minnesota men experienced various neurological deficits: lack of concentration anxiety, irritability and depression. Depressive episodes are both a physiological result of reduced dietary energy intake, and a psychological response to constantly fighting hunger.
Participants were also fanatically preoccupied with food: it was the principal topic of conversation and the subject of their dreams. They collected menus and cookery books; and some even expressed a desire to become chefs after the experiment had ended.
This obsession is also true of competitors. My fellow bikini models and I constantly talked of and thought about food: comparing our meals, watching food channels, and compulsively starring at ‘forbidden’ food items in the supermarket.
A common symptom of calorie restriction experienced by both study participants and competitors is heightened cravings. As with food obsession, cravings are survival mechanisms that ensure that the starving individual seeks out nutrition. In the fitness world, cravings are typically for carbohydrates such as doughnuts, chips and ice cream.
Following the semi-starvation phase, the men underwent 3 months of restricted rehabilitation where their daily rations were incrementally increased to 3200kcal. Their extreme hunger did not abate, however. According to Dr Keys, this was because the calorie increase was still not sufficient ‘to allow tissues destroyed during starvation to be rebuilt.’6
Finally, there was an eight-week period during which there were no limits on food intake, during which the men would often binge on 8000-10,000kcal a day. As a result, they frequently vomited after meals and one was admitted to hospital to have his stomach pumped.
This extreme huger, known as hyperphagia, is also typical of anorexia recovery. It is the result of the body’s attempt not only to restore weight, but also to repair the physical damage that has occurred during starvation. Throughout my own recovery, I had frequent binges where I could easily consume a frightening 10,000kcal in one sitting and still not be satisfied. You can find a detailed account of my own experiences in Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Fitness Competitions.
Despite having no previous history of eating disorders, participants continued to be preoccupied with food, binge eating or restricting their calorie intake long after the study had ended.
Like the starvation imposed upon the men in this study, the extreme diet required for a competition can lead to obsessive and destructive food-related behaviours for women who have no previous histories of disorderly eating.
The experiment revealed that malnutrition itself causes these symptoms: eating disorders can be created just by depriving the body of food through dieting.
This means that many, including myself, have hung up their sequinned bikinis. Like the Minnesota men, we have found starvation too damaging to our psychological and physical well-being.
- Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid