The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, Ancel Keys & Why Science Won’t Save Us

One of my favorite ways to get to know someone is to find out what their weirdest, most out-of-the-blue, most inane trigger for Big Anger is. My husband’s is chicken and waffles; he finds the combination of a sweet breakfast item with a savory non-breakfast item simply unbearable and there mere sight of chicken and waffles on a menu sends him into a rant. And for me? It’s something even more specific.

It’s Ancel Keys.

You see, nearly anytime I see the words “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” discussed in an anti-diet context, I lose my shit. I start frothing at the mouth and spitting out a rant about Ancel Keys and the obsession with this “experiment” and how he has no place in the anti-diet movement. It’s simply mystifying to onlookers who have never heard of this study or Ancel Keys. One time he showed up in an episode of Adam Ruins Everything and I just about hit the roof, before realizing Adam was on my side about this man. (Well, sort of.)

But even though I admit that this is a very niche hair-trigger to have, I still think it’s absolutely justified. Buckle in, this is gonna be a long ride through my very specific and special hatred of this one freaking guy.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

Here’s what “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment” was: Between 1944 and 1945, a University of Minnesota physiologist named Ancel Keys and his colleagues conducted an experiment to understand the physiological and psychological effects of famine. This was timely because, if you’ll note the dates of the study, it took place right at the end of World War II. The intent was to determine the best way to help famine victims in Europe and Asia. In the end, the results were too late to be of much assistance in that effort, but it was the first laboratory simulation of famine and starvation, so, bully for you, Ancel.

Ancel and his colleagues found 36 volunteers, who were conscientious objectors to the war. They were all men (because of course, that’s how science works!) and all of them met specific physical and psychological criteria. They were deemed “healthy” going into the study.

Keys Study participants.

The study took a year. For the first 12 weeks, they established a baseline for the volunteers: The were fed a controlled diet and were at or close to their “ideal” weight, according to Ancel and his bros. (And as we will learn, Ancel had a lot of opinions about what constitutes an “ideal” weight.) Their bodies, mental state, and behavior were noted and evaluated. Then, for the next 6 months, the volunteers had their diets restricted. Their daily caloric intake was cut in half, and they subsisted on food that would have been available to victims of famine in Europe at the time. (Root vegetables, bread, and macaroni.) During all of this, the men were monitored, and predictably, they did not do too well. They controlled the men’s intake so their body weight was reduced by about 25% during this period. The men also had to complete specific work tasks, like walking 22 miles each week (!!!!), and they all kept journals.

Then the Science™ went into effect and they started experimenting with the correct way to rehabilitate the men, with the 36 participants divided into four groups. This period lasted 12 weeks. The final eight weeks of the study allowed the participants to eat unrestricted, but their diets and behavior were still closely monitored.

The end result was a very long study almost no one has read called The Biology of Human Starvation, because why would you read it when it has been covered everywhere from the BBC to Refinery 29 to Instagram.

And you can explore the wealth of information about the findings that are out there, but the gist is that starvation is hard on people. The men who volunteered for the experiment were fixated on food, found themselves anxious and depressed, some pulled out of the study, and one guy chopped some fingers off while cutting wood. (Though, it must be noted, that participant does not recall if it was an accident or intentional.)

And, believe me, I get why this is compelling to people! It’s dramatic! It’s scientific! It was conducted by white men in lab coats at a university! (Gotta love that appeal to academic authority!) It seems applicable to dieting and eating disorders! But here’s the thing about applying this to an anti-diet context:

  • Being on Weight Watchers and being a victim of famine in World War II are very different things! I hope I don’t have to explain in too much depth why comparing your time on a diet to famine created by war and genocide is more than a little Problematic.
  • The study was designed to simulate extreme hunger and famine. The subjects also had very little privacy and control over their day-to-day lives as part of the study. I don’t know about you, but even when I going hardest on my diet, I still had privacy and freedom of choice. I ate ice cream on the regular, even though it was usually Skinny Cow or Halo Top. I did not subsist on rutabagas or have Ancel Keys watching my every move. So, the conditions of the modern weight loss diet are generally better than what these men experienced. (And do I have to mention again that the living conditions of the modern dieter were also better than famine victims in post-war Europe and Asia?)
  • Ancel Keys WOULD NOT BE PLEASED to learn that his study is being used to justify NOT DIETING

An Important Fact About Ancel Keys

So, there is something very important to know about ol’ Ancel, especially when we are invoking his work in the context of anti-diet work or fat activism: You know the Body Mass Index? The BMI? The horrible chart hanging in doctor’s offices that classifies us by the ratio of our height and weight? Well. HE DID THAT. We can thank him for that.

Thanks, you bastard.

In the mid-1900s, there was a great deal of concern about how to classify people based on body size. In her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings shares her research about the development of the current standard of the “ideal” or correct body size in the chapter “Fat, Revisited.” In 1937, a new standard for body size was published by Louis Dublin, the Vice President of Metropolitan Life. The Statistical Bulletin of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 1942-43 pulled data from Met Life’s policy holders and added a new criteria to evaluate the likelihood of having to pay out a life insurance claim because someone died: “body frame.” (Small, medium, and large.) We don’t know how “body frame” was measured, but in 1959, Met Life participated in the “Build and Blood Pressure Study” with other American insurance companies. The data from that study was used to build tables that quantified “desirable weights.” And these actuarial tables generated by Met Life were the standard measure of “body frame” for a good long while.

Until our buddy Ancel came along.

From Strings’ book:

[Keys] wanted to devise a more consistent way to measure overweight and obesity across different populations. He found the vagaries of the Metropolitan Life tables from 1912 to 1959 to belie the label “standard weight.” Keys decided to look to history for inspiration, and he found it in the work of a nineteenth-century scientist named Adolphe Quetelet. In 1832 Quetelet had derived an index to assess weights across a given population, which became known as the Quetelet Index. The index was not designed to measure obesity. Nevertheless, Keys determined that this index, which he re-named the “body mass index,” would be a useful tool for measuring obesity in contemporary societies. In 1972, Keys published a landmark paper in the Journal of Chronic Diseases, making the case for the use of the body mass index, or BMI. In his own assessment, BMI was a less than perfect measure. But it was good enough to replace what he described as the “industry-hyped” tables. To Keys, the BMI, “if not fully satisfactory, [was] at least as good as any other relative weight index as an indicator of relative obesity.”

Keys actively lobbied to replace the Met Life tables with the BMI. Dude was on a mission to get us to adopt the BMI, and he succeeded. He’s basically single-handedly responsible for taking what was an actuarial concern for evaluating the likelihood of paying out a claim for someone’s life insurance into a medicalized standard of body size. He is the father of modern medical fatphobia. I won’t go into the problems with the BMI, since there are lots of resources that go into it, but do you see now? Do you see why discussing the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in the same piece as why using the BMI is a measure of health makes me spit with rage?

It me.

Oh, and there’s more. So much more.

The Big Fat Heart-Stopping Legacy of Ancel Keys

Beyond The Minnesota Starvation Experiment and being the source of our modern use of the BMI, Keys was famous for another landmark study: The Seven Countries Study. Look, a lot of the controversy over this study is basically an ideological war between different factions of nutritionists, which is the most boring turf war in all of history, so I’m not going to glorify the takedown of Ancel Keys’ study. “FAT IS THE BAD GUY!” “No, SUGAR is the bad guy!” “REFINED CARBOHYDRATES are the true bad guy!” I am pretty sure nutrition professionals are the actual bad guys! But here are the basics you need to know:

  • In 1978, Ancel Keys published his Seven Countries Study
  • It was funded with a MASSIVE GRANT from the U.S. Public Health Service and MAY HAVE had less-than-scientific motivations for finding a specific result that would definitely not link sugar to fatness and cardiovascular problems
  • The Seven Countries Study looked at the effects of diet and lifestyle on heart disease and stroke in (YOU GUESSED IT) seven different countries and studied only men (a theme in Science™, eh?)
  • This study linked blood cholesterol with heart disease and deaths, and correlated all of these things with body weight
  • Its main finding was that Dietary Fat Is Bad (and also Smoking Is Bad, but we talk about that a lot less)
  • We can thank Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study for DECADES of gross low-fat food and snacks
  • It inspired the Mediterranean diet, which is a diet that is sort of (but not really) based on the eating habits of people in Italy and Greece in the 1960s and still pops up on lists of “best diets”

Here’s the thing: I take no position on whether Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study was right or wrong or corrupt or flawed or fantastic. The point I want to make is that this dude was not trying to prove that dieting was bad. Ancel Keys is the source of much our modern-day medicalized fatphobia, nutrition science, and diet books. You want to stand on a soapbox and talk about how bad dieting is for you? FANTASTIC, I’m all in. But Ancel Keys is not going to help you combat diet culture. He is diet culture. That is his legacy.

Ancel Keys is just concerned about your health.

More from Strings’ book:

Clearly, the situation [of the relationship between weight and mortality] was complicated. This much Keys allowed in his reflection on his research in a Time magazine cover story from 1961. In it, he claimed that obesity did not necessarily cause coronary heart disease. It was nevertheless, in his view, “ugly.” Here lay the heart of this matter. Like many respected medical professionals writing on the topic, keys viewed obesity as unsightly. In other publications he described obesity as “disgusting” and “repugnant.” Moreover, he described fat people as “clumsy” and their weighty bodies as “hard on furniture.” These statements make it hard to believe that his work in this area was fueled exclusively by medical findings on the complex relationship between weight and health, as opposed to his personal opinion that fat was unseemly and should be exorcised.

I mean, he’s got me on the furniture thing. Sick burn! But the point is that Ancel Keys’ work was not unbiased, and in fact, the man himself was very much biased against fat people. His work as a researcher was foundational to our current understanding of the relationship between health, body size, and mortality. And his spirit also lives on in every troll leaving me comments that advise me to “enjoy my heart attack.” That mindset is also his legacy.

Science Won’t Save Us

Collectively, we have a notion that Science™ is unbiased, rational, and rooted in truth. Science in fact aims to be those very things. Personally, I love science! But it’s complicated. It gets a lot of things right. Like anesthesia, how cool is it that you don’t have to be awake and able to feel everything when surgeons cut your body open?! And vaccines! I love not having polio or the measles! I am looking forward to a coronavirus vaccine so people can stop dying! But it can also go to some dangerous places, such as eugenics, or the Tuskegee syphilis study, just a few examples of many times science was not on the right side of history. We can champion science, while still being cautious, intentional, and vigilant in how we use it.

The meme-ification of Ancel Keys’ semi-starvation experiment is, in my opinion, a wildly irresponsible example of using science to back up an opinion. First, it’s taking a study out of context and applying it to a modern debate and context that it never intended to address. You’re finding this study and retroactively shoving it into your pre-existing viewpoint. That makes it propaganda, not science. And by continually propping up the Keys study, we’re making an appeal to the authority of a guy who dedicated his life’s work to eradicating fat people. Are we going to be liberated from oppressive weight science by citing the work of oppressive weight scientists? We’re not going to be able to get doctors to rip the BMI charts off their walls by glorifying the guy who put it there in the first place.

The real trouble with using Science™ to justify fat activism or anti-diet rhetoric is that it entails using the framework of science to make what is essentially a moral argument. If a peer-reviewed study showed us that being fat was detrimental to our health and we would be healthier and live longer if we lost weight, would we say: “Well, shit! If science says so! Guess it must be true, better start a diet!” Of course not! Because here’s the thing: those studies actually exist. Each time you bombard some keto enthusiast on the internet with some science to get them to shut up, they can pull just as many out of their pockets to make the opposite point. Science is not immutable. Science is a conversation, a quest for truth, and in some cases, multiple truths can exist simultaneously. Your argument with the keto evangelist is not a scientific argument. It is a moral argument. That’s why the Peer-Reviewed Study Showdown has never helped anyone on the internet.

Sometimes, it’s true that we need to make a scientific appeal to reach a particular audience. Health at Every Size (HAES), for instance, makes a science-based case for providing weight-neutral care that can enhance the health of patients. It’s a perspective that’s necessary to appeal to healthcare providers. (And it’s why it’s so popular with people who work in the field of nutrition and are the intellectual descendants of Ancel Keys and William Kellogg and the whole roster of dudebros who sought to make the world a better place by telling people what to eat and how big or small to be.) But even HAES is just a way of communicating what is a morality-based idea: that people deserve to access healthcare and medical treatment regardless of their body size. Ancel Keys and his weight science and nutrition buddies were also making a moral argument: that there is a correct way to have a body and that pursuing their definition of “health” and correct body size are personal, social and moral obligations.

I don’t know if there is a correct way to make the case that dieting is harmful and that fat people deserve to have access to medical care. I don’t know how to convince people that they should care about other people. If I knew the secret to that, I would be doing a lot more than writing a blog. But I do know that cold, hard Science™ is not likely to teach anyone empathy. And that much likelier candidates for teaching others that their lives are worthwhile are the people themselves, those who were harmed by diets and eating disorders and diet culture and medical fatphobia. I do know that by placing greater weight on the words and works of Ancel Keys than the people living in those bodies he and his cohorts were so driven to control with weight science, we marginalize them even further. Do we need The Minnesota Starvation Study to know that a restrictive diet is bad? No, we have people with lived experience who can attest to it. And the need to filter the lived experience of marginalized people through the lens of a scientific study to get people to take their lived experience seriously is part of the problem, not the solution. There’s been a lot of talk about systems of oppression in the world lately. The system that makes the voice of a thin, white scientist who hated fat people more valuable to you than the voice of fat people saying “this harms me” and using an appeal to his authority to gives yours a boost is one of the systems we’re talking about here.

So, can we please stop talking about The Minnesota Starvation Study?! We don’t need it. It doesn’t help us.


4 thoughts on “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, Ancel Keys & Why Science Won’t Save Us

  1. The way I like to think about science is evidence based. The reason I’m good with vaccines is there’s evidence based studies that show they work. There’s also plenty of evidence that shows how terrible and detrimental diets/weight manipulation is despite how much Individual Person succeeded. It took me a while to realize that science and academia would not save us, but anything involving people can be corrupted and used against other people. It’s a shame you can’t just point to a study as an authority. You have to know who did the study, who paid for it, what advantage particular results might give said people. You, as an individual, have to know how to critically think in order to parse out the bullshit, and it’s why there are so many people like anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers today. They’re completely asinine in what they believe, but there’s a grain of understanding in them not trusting big corporations, but they don’t have the thinking skills to parse out what’s what, but they think they do, so you’re also dealing with Dunning-Kruger issues. It’s frustrating, but as you said, it all comes down to caring about other people. Not thinking someone is disgusting and unworthy of care because they don’t live up to this arbitrary ideal that you think is an absolute, but is really just years of conditioning you neither realize you’ve had nor would acknowledge even if pointed out.


  2. Wow, I had no clue that the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was an actual real life thing. About two years ago I read a book called The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer. In this novel there was a character who was a conscientious objector during WW2 and who participated in such an experiment. I was horrified when I read it but had thought it was pure fiction.


  3. I’m a registered dietitian, and I want you to know that I firmly believe, to quote you, “that dieting is harmful and that fat people deserve to have access to medical care.” And all of the dietitians I work with feel the same. So I hope you know that not all “nutrition professionals” are the “bad guys.” Keep fighting the good fight. I’m a new dietitian (2 years), so I’m not sure what the field was like 10 or 20 years ago. But I know that the upcoming generation of us are on the same team.


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