The Psychological Effects of Hunger

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The Psychological Effects of Hunger

Chronic hunger may lead some changes in the brain that can cause extreme changes in a person's behavior / Photo by Getty Images


Chronic hunger not on only has physical effects on a person’s health but psychological effects as well. Deprivation of food, whether it is done intentionally or because of inevitable circumstances they are in, leads to changes in the brain that can cause extreme changes in a person’s behavior. Keys and Brozek’s starvation experiment became the breakthrough for discovering what happens to the brain when one is at the brink of constant hunger.

The states that one in seven people suffer from hunger. Conversely, 1/3 of the world’s food is constantly wasted. Asia is considered the continent that has the most people who are affected by recurring hunger.

Hunger and Chronic Hunger Definition

Psychology Today defined hunger as the “complex physiological signal, often ‘compelling and unpleasant’, that creates an urge to eat.

Psychological Reasons for Eating

People’s eating habits are influenced by various factors. The Cleveland Clinic says these may be family factors, cultural factors, a person’s economic status, social factors, evolutionary factors and individual factors.

For psychological reasons, some people use eating as a means to cope with their stress, boredom and anxiety. This may also be used to prolong happiness.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment Process

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, conducted by Ancel Keys, a physiologist, together with Joseph Brozek, a psychologist, showed how semi-starvation affected men during WWII in 1944. They were able to get participants from the Civilian Public Service, who were known for wanting to do useful work that would be helpful to mankind, were also known as guinea pigs because of how willing they were to participate in medical experiments.

Among the men who were part of the CPS, they chose 36 who were single, physically and mentally healthy, were passionate about relief work and were able to get along with others even in difficult situations.

According to the American Psychological Association, while the men went through the experiment, they had to lose 25% of their bodyweight. For six months, the men had to gradually reduce their calorie intake by half. They went from consuming 3,200 calories to 1, 570 calories a day, which were split between breakfast and lunch. The food which was provided to the subjects mostly included root vegetables, macaroni, potatoes and bread.

During the span of the experiment, the subjects were also asked to work 15 hours each week in the lab as well as walk for 22 miles and take part of different educational activities for 25 hours every week. Keys and Brozek monitored the changes which were prompted by nearly starving them.

Three months later, they began to re-feed them as part of the rehabilitation process. The physical and psychological effects in both stages of the experiment were astounding.

Effects of the Semi-starvation Period

In the six-month semi-starvation period, there were noticeable changes besides their appearance. These were:

1. Physical Changes

The men were shown to have a great decrease in their heart rate, stamina, sex drive, and strength. Their ankles and legs swelled because of edema, a condition that causes their tissues to have too much fluid.

2.They became food-obsessed

They were also observed to be fantasizing and dreaming of food, which became their sole source of interest. Their lives became so overtaken by it that they would read and talk about it all day. They relished the only two meals that were given to them by the experimenters.

Meg Free, author of Can Hunger Change Your Brain? Ancel Keys and the Danger of Dieting, describes, “They pored over cookbooks and stayed up late into the night studying recipes. They created elaborate rituals around mealtimes… Scraps of food were scavenged from garbage cans.”

She continued that there was a participant who bought doughnuts just to give them out to children and watch them eat them. One of the subjects was of the study even began to fantasize about cannibalism. He was banned from study when he told Keys that he was going to kill him and himself.

3. Semi-starvation neurosis

Keys and his team also noticed that the within the starvation phase, the men also grew more irritable, depressed and apathetic, and had increased feelings of fatigue. They were also found to have lost their ability to focus and had become more sluggish. They no longer laughed and they lost interest in other things such as politics and world events.



What Happened in the Re-feeding Process?

After three months, the calorie was increased again. From 200 calories, it eventually became 800. Keys and his colleagues concluded that to be able to fully recover from starvation, a person had to take at least 4,000 calories a day. However, this increase of calories was enough to satisfy their hunger.

Soon, the experimenters, took away the calorie restrictions and allowed the participants to have as much food as they wanted. This resulted in having the men consuming around 5,000 11, 500 calories daily.

After undergoing the experiment, one of the participants commented, “I don’t many other things in life that I looked forward to being over with other than this experiment. And it wasn’t so much…  because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing.”

Combating Hunger, The Right Way

To be able to keep track of their daily calorie intake, individuals are advised to keep a food diary which notes what they eat, the time when they it, what they feel while eating it and if they were doing other activities while eating. They are warned not to skip meals and told to exercise rather than eat to deal with their boredom. Eating in the evening should be lessened.

People are also told to watch how much they eat, eat only in certain places like the kitchen table for instance and to drink lots of water. They should allow themselves to eat different kinds of food without restricting themselves from a certain kind of food. They should only weigh themselves once per week. They should also avoid eating while working, driving and watching TV.

It is best that after making one’s own food diary, they consult a dietician, therapist or doctor to help them manage their body weight an guide them on the proper diet changes they should implement in their food intake.


Keeping a food diary is advisable for people to keep a track on their daily calorie intake / Photo by Getty Images




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