What happens when you don’t eat enough? 🤔

Updated: Jul 25


It’s important to eat regularly throughout the day. The body needs food to fuel itself with nutrients so it can function normally. When crucial nutrients are missing, the body must make do with a lower amount of energy and cut corners.


💔 Long-term, this this can cause serious damage. In a malnourished state, your body starts to make decisions and prioritize what needs attention and what doesn’t. With a prolonged inadequate diet, long term malnutrition eventually causes damage to organ systems.


What’s the Minnesota Starvation Study?


Some of the research we know on starvation comes from the Minnesota Starvation Study. During World War II, when food was being rationed, researchers studied how people recover from starvation. To do this, a group of men voluntarily starved themselves. They were put through a process of semi-starvation and then starvation in order to lose at least 25% of their body weight.


The results were shocking to the researchers. During the early phases of the study there were almost immediate effects. Physically, the men began to shrink, their strength and stamina decreasing significantly, along with their body temperature, heart rate, and sex drive. Hunger made the men obsess over food by constantly reading and talking about food.


😫 Psychologically, they were tired , irritable, depressed and apathetic. They felt less capable of doing mental tasks.


Wait a minute, obsessing over food, feeling cold, tired, and irritable? That sounds familiar.


The impact of malnourishment is the same, whether in a study or an eating disorder.


👉 It can cause hormonal imbalances. Your periods might be irregular or disappear altogether. In men erectile dysfunction and other signs of testosterone deficiency can occur. Ultimately, the lack of nutrients may lead to infertility.


👉 It can impact your gut health, leaving the digestive system imbalanced and struggling to function. Lacking nutrients can lead to malfunctioning intestines, and diarrhea or constipation.


👉 It can damage your heart. Without enough fuel for your body, it will start using the proteins from your muscles, which can cause heart failure. Lack of electrolytes from starvation or purging can also cause the heart to beat in an abnormal rhythm and can result in sudden death.


👉 It can lead to brain damage. Your brain cells need, vitamins, and energy to function. Without them, you may be tired or struggle to think, in severe cases brain damage can occur.


You should know that these health problems are preventable and usually reversible, especially with the right help.


And back to the Minnesota study…

Well, the men were put through a rehabilitation period. The most reliable way to do this was by getting more nutrients and eating more calories. Some went through a restricted program with a monitored safe program to get up to a normal weight. Others were “unrestricted”, which often led to extreme overeating.


As they started to eat regularly and gained weight, their symptoms went away and they were able to live normal lives. And so can you if you are struggling with an eating disorder.


More on the Minnesota Starvation Study

More on the effects of malnutrition


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Written By:

Lindsey Depledge

Lindsey is one of the founders of Beanbag Health with a personal passion for eating disorders. She's a behavioral scientist with a background in health-tech and ed-tech in the US. She has designed healthcare and education programs at scale, engaging millions of Americans and thousands of students globally, including many from traditionally underserved backgrounds.

Clinically Reviewed By:

Iain Jordan

Iain is a consultant psychiatrist with postgraduate training in medicine, psychiatry, complexity science, and healthcare informatics. He's fascinated by the relationship between physical health and mental health and has extensive experience with eating disorder patients in inpatient settings. He's an honorary senior clinical lecturer at University of Oxford. His passion is making psychological strategies for recovery available to all.