When a person is starved of nutrition, the body responds with physical and psychological changes which are termed Starvation Syndrome.

The effects of starvation syndrome are often observed in individuals with eating disorders due to their restricted intake, irregular eating or compensatory behaviours.

Some of the changes you may see in your loved one include (but are not limited to):

  • Increased anxiety
  • Unable to communicate feelings
  • Impaired decision making
  • Rigid thoughts
  • Withdrawn and disconnected to loved ones
  • Changes in attitude and behaviour toward eating



Garner (1997) recommends providing information from research or psychoeducation to individuals with eating disorders.  It is suggested to be a core component of eating disorder treatment because it can act as a source of motivation and reduces defensiveness in patients (Garner, Rockert, Olmsted, Johnson & Coscina, 1985).

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment is a valuable example of the physical, psychological, behavioural and social changes relating to starvation.  In the mid 1940’s the University of Minnesota examined the effects of dietary restriction and subsequent nutritional restoration.  The study recruited 32 healthy male volunteers, all of whom were young adults.


The Starvation Experiment provides a wealth of knowledge about the psychological and physiological effects of starvation, a key component in anorexia nervosa, but it also offered insight into the rehabilitation/refeeding process.  Discussing these findings helps understanding of the process of restrictive eating and how to implement adaptive refeeding.

The study encompassed three stages:

  • 3 month control – participants ate normally
  • 6 month semi starvation period: caloric intake of each participant was reduced by 50%
  • 3 month recovery – participants were re-nourished


  • Physical Changes

  • Reduced heart rate and size
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Slow metabolism
  • Feeling cold
  • Fluid retention
  • Dizziness
  • Poor concentration
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Hair loss
  • Lanugo
  • Decreased hormone levels


  • Emotional Changes

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in life


  • Changes in Thinking

  • Impaired concentration, judgement, decision making
  • Impaired concentration
  • Increased rigidity and obsessional thinking
  • Reduced alertness


  • Social Changes

  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Feelings of social inadequacy
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Strained relationships


  • Attitudes and behaviour related to eating

  • Thinking about food all the time
  • Meticulous planning of meals
  • Eating very fast or very slowly
  • Increased hunger, binge eating
  • Tendency to hoard (eg collecting recipes)
  • Increased use of condiments for flavour (eg spices)