[TW: Eating disorders, starvation]
For me, it was a comment from my dad that planted the seed. My friends watered it. Social media gave it light. I nurtured it myself at times, until it broke through the one thing I swore I would protect: my curiosity, my joy, my desire to learn. I couldn’t focus. I had to eat to feed my mind, so I started cutting its branches, not realizing that like a weed, it would not go away until I came for its roots. I justified my eating by the amount of work I was getting done. I tried to block its light and water sources with a flimsy net. I retorted that all foods have different purposes. Dessert is not “junk” because it has sugar; sugar gives us energy. Eating less is not healthy when it makes you pass out. Not truly believing in my words. Telling people you should eat when you are hungry and at the same time feeling good about starving myself. The truth about not eating when you are hungry is that it will make you feel in control. Like you can truly do and be anything you want. Unlike the uncomfortable feeling of doing something you don’t want to. I tried to tell myself I was asserting my control over my body by doing whatever I wanted with it, but I was really only surrendering to the expectations of others. I gave up on trying to find beauty in myself because it was too hard to appreciate something others wouldn’t.
The truth about not eating when you are hungry is that it will make you feel like whether or not you eat is an integral part of your worth and who you are as a person. As if there is a number above your head that people will scorn you for if it is too high. And maybe they will. And some will. But that is really no excuse to neglect your health.
The truth about not eating when you are hungry is that it will change you. It will make you feel like this is a good thing for you, something you should keep doing. It is a parasite that feeds on your fear. The only way to defeat it is to start eating again. This will not be the end of your battle, but it will be a necessary start. Weeding is a continuous process, and neglect can lead to overgrowth. People will say you should eat less, but there is no perfect way of eating, and the truth is you should always eat when you are hungry.
In 1944, a group of 36 conscientious war objectors was selected to study the effects of starvation and learn how to best rehabilitate the millions left without food by World War II. Now known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, the study was both tragic and enlightening as to the effects of starvation on the body and brain. The experiment was divided into three phases. The first phase was the control period. The participants were fed a healthy amount of food each day for 3 months. During the second phase, the participants were put on a strict diet and watch which essentially cut their daily food intake in half. As a result, they experienced physical inhibitions such as decreased energy, strength, body temperature, and heart rate as well as personality changes such as increased irritability and sluggishness and decreased motivation. The participants also experienced increased depression, hysteria, and hypochondriasis (excessive worry about having a serious illness). One participant even cut off three of his fingers while chopping wood. When interviewed about why he did it, he responded that he could not remember whether or not he did it on purpose. Four participants were excluded from the final report due to breaking their diet, two of which had to be hospitalized for psychosis, though their psychotic symptoms ended after they started eating enough again. The last phase was the refeeding phase and lasted 3 months. During rehabilitation, the participants were able to quickly overcome the lethargy and dizziness which was caused by not eating, but many of the psychological effects persisted. In particular, participants continued to be preoccupied by food, three participants even changing their careers to become chefs and one going into agriculture. Participants reflected on watching others eat and being upset with people who didn’t finish their food as well as being territorial over their food. They developed body image issues and feelings of social inadequacy. Though the study concluded after the end of the war and was ethically questionable, it helped scientists learn how to better rehabilitate the starving population. The main conclusion was that those who have gone through famine-like conditions should be given a very high caloric diet, and that the high quantity of food matters more than the nutritional value of the foods eaten. Optimistically, the experiment showed that characteristics such as depression and impulsivity which were originally thought to predispose people to disordered eating are, in fact, byproducts of starvation. This means that many of the factors that encourage disordered eating are actually caused by the disordered eating itself and will likely resolve after rehabilitation. Though overcoming such an illness is tough, there is good, science-backed reason to have hope.
Editor’s Note: Links to studies, sources, and additional resources can be found on the online version of this article on tech.caltech.edu.
If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, Caltech Student Wellness Services’ crisis support line is available 24/7, including weekends and holidays: (626) 395-8331 and press “2” when prompted, please stay on the line. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) also offers crisis support – call 988 or continue to contact Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. Crisis Text Line is a separate organization staffed by volunteers who provide free, 24/7 support via text message to individuals who are struggling with mental health, including eating disorders, and are experiencing crisis situations.