The Mental Effects of Hunger


Ancel Keys, an early researcher for Obesity, once wrote. “The history of man is in large part the

chronicle of his quest for food.”

Many people few the contrasting epidemics of Obesity and Hunger to contradict each other in

such a way that both have become topics that aren’t of much relevance to our current policy

makers in light of more pressing issues. No longer can we stand by as we learn of the effects that

the latter can have on people of any age and the reasons why we don’t the resources to stop the

epidemic as it continues to grow.

According to Dr. John Butterly and Jack Shepard, authors of the new book Hunger:The Biology

and Politics of Starvation , almost 15% of all households do not have enough to eat daily and

suffer from recurring hunger. That amounts to over 1.02 billion families living their lives without

the assurance of food. What is more alarming is not the number of people but the way it affects

them, something which is better shown through an experiment conducted by Ancel Keys in the

early 1950s.

Keys conducted an experiment a pool of over 30 conscientious objector volunteers. These men

and women, by participating in the experiment, would willingly restrict their food intake

substantially for several months for the sole purpose of providing detailed information on the

psychological and physiological effects of caloric restriction. The experiment, called the

“Minnesota semi-starvation experiment,” documented the results in an enormous two-volume

tome. The semi-starvation was meant to pose the least possible harm to the participants of the

experient as the participants where provided with comfortable living conditions, warm clothing,

and under no threat of attack.

Over the course of the experiment, the men were to lose about 25% of their weight by caloric

restriction and exercise and then spend three months in rehabilitation. Humans can tolerate a

weight loss of up to “10% of their weight without much functional disorganization” according to

an article written for Psychology Today in early 2011. This drastic loss in weight, though

carefully monitored, brought forward a plethora of results that when revealed showed the real

harms of having too little to eat.

Throughout the experiment, Keys' subjects became totally preoccupied with food. Often, they

would spend hours on end thinking over their meals. They developed “striking changes” to both

their physical and mental appearances that only became more apparent as the experiement

continued. The men soon became depressed, listless, unable to concentrate, socially withdrawn,

and apathetic. At the turn of the second month of the experiment the men and women became

less concerned with their hygiene, neglecting to comb their hair, brush their teeth, and in some

cases, even shower. Keys called the syndrome "semistarvation neurosis,” and the effects it's had

on some of the participants lasted longer than the 3 month rehabilitation period provided to them at the end of the experiment.

What is important to take away from here is the ages of the participants. These men and womenranged from early 20s to late 30s, but all showed drastic changes in both their physical and mental selves. The fact more alarming than the effects of hunger is the fact of who it's affecting. According Feeding America, almost 1 in 6 children will not know where their next meal will come from. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if the effects of hunger on an adult are bad, the same conditions being brought upon a child could be fatal.

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