What do binge eating and World War II have in common?
In the 1940s, the University of Minnesota wanted to find out the physical and psychological effects of starvation, in part to guide relief efforts for famine victims in Europe and Asia at the end of the war.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, as it is commonly called, studied 36 young men who had been carefully screened to make sure that they were physically and psychologically healthy.
During a period of six months, the men were placed on a severely restrictive diet until they lost approximately 25 percent of their normal weight.
During the course of the semi-starvation period of the study the men were found to show side effects similar to those often seen in people with eating disorders. The men became preoccupied with food — incessantly thinking and talking about food and eating, collecting cookbooks and recipes, and dreaming about food. Another major side effect of the restrictive diet was binge eating. In particular, once the restriction was stopped, the men started bingeing and gained so much weight, they weighed more than they had at the start of the study.
Ultimately, however, the abnormal eating behavior and psychological preoccupation with food disappeared as the men continued to have free access to food.
Although these subjects were men who had no eating disorders or weight problems prior to the study, they developed problems similar to those we see today in people (mostly women) with eating disorders.
So what does this all mean? The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is considered a landmark study because it revealed that severe and prolonged restriction of food can lead to serious psychological and physiological problems.
Just as the study subjects went from being normal eaters to binge eaters, so do many people in our society today binge because of rigid dieting. Many people can relate to the symptoms reported in this study, but few people realize that restrictive dieting alone can create such problems.
Instead, binge eaters are blamed for having no willpower. This is unfortunate because too many people go around chastising themselves and being criticized for something they didn't mean to create.
Most of my patients who binge, when asked if they remember their first binge, don't hesitate to tell a tale of losing complete control over food. More often than not, we find that the bingeing started shortly after an attempt to strictly control eating. They quickly see that, at one time, they were a "normal eating person" — one who ate when their body told them to and stopped naturally when their body felt they had had enough.
They may not remember when this happened but will acknowledge that, even if it was when they were babies, their eating was once under natural control. Then they started to take extreme control over their eating — usually because they felt they needed to lose weight — and before long, they were caught in a cycle of bingeing and dieting.
In the case of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment subjects, their eating returned to normal because they were not restricted in their eating again. Most binge eaters, however, attempt to control bingeing and weight through rigid dieting, never realizing they are perpetuating their own pain.
Those who recognize the problem can make bingeing a thing of the past. They learn that their behavior was a natural reaction of the body and brain to restriction and deprivation.
Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 240-9557.