Over 70 years ago, a scientist named Ancel Keys developed a study that emphasized the importance of the mind-body connection. Before I continue, here’s a little personal side note: it only took six years of anorexia and three years of recovery to fully grasp the concept of a mind-body connection. Both mental and physical health is needed for ultimate functioning. My initial thought in recovery was: “let me just gain the weight and then I’ll be done with this shit.” Saying this was essentially saying that my thinking patterns and anxiety didn’t play a role in anorexia (which, clearly, they both do).

The starvation study looked at the impact of starvation on the body and mind. Sounds slightly unethical… despite that, 36 young male volunteers were a part of this study. For the first 12 weeks of the study, the men ate a diet of about 3,200 calories a day (jaaaaackpot). Then for an additional 12 weeks, the diet was reduced to a mere 1,600 calories (half of what they were previously eating).

While the results are pretty interesting, I cannot say they’re too surprising.

Food, food, food

Results showed that the men began very preoccupied with food and would fantasize about high-caloric food that they were restricted from having. Conversation amongst the men even shifted; they began to talk about food and recipes, both of which they also could not have at the time. When meal times were delayed or changed, they became instantly irritated. I can’t help but relate these experiences to anorexia recovery.I remember in recovery groups, we would all reluctantly admit that we were “addicted” to Food Network and that our computers were filled with bookmarked recipes of meals that we would never allow ourselves to try.

The binge-restrict cycle

Here’s a little honesty for you: I never really binged throughout my recovery, until the very end. My body was still malnourished and my mind was still fearful to be placed back into starvation mode. There were at least five times that I binged and I couldn’t seem to figure out why. The results of this study also showed that when men were on very restricted diets, they ended up chewing gum constantly and drinking over 80 ounces of coffee every single day (that is more than eight cups)! They were essentially replacing what they couldn’t have, with the substances that they were allowed an unlimited supply of. The study also showed that when they were given access to food, the men had no control and would end up binging on thousands of calories in just one sitting. In both cases, myself and the men were experiencing such food restriction that we lost our ability to control our intake once we finally were allowed to eat.

Let’s talk about emotions for a hot minute

Like I said, when the mind is effected, the body usually follows. Think about when you’re feeling sad or lonely; your body may feel sluggish or tired and will often times match your mood. When the body is effected, the mind also is. Malnourishment results with a mind that has impaired judgment and (for me) irrationality. The men in this study were initially described as a “lively crew.” The reduced caloric intake brought with it a huge shift in mood: the men became irritable, anxious, isolating, obsessive, and showed an increase in anxiety. They also experienced body distortion. Here’s the irony in it all: even though the men showed significant weight loss and had dramatically changed in appearance, many of the men did not perceive themselves as underweight. The men became focused on their stomachs and often expressed they felt bloated and constipated.

While I still feel like the study was just a LITTLE bit unethical, it shows the clear connection between the body and the mind. Affect one, and the other is sure to be impacted. Recovery cannot be accomplished by “fixing” one aspect while ignoring the other. 

Keys, A., Brožek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O., & Taylor, H. L. (1950). The biology of human starvation. Oxford, England: Univ. of Minnesota Press.


Nicole works as a life and wellness coach through Nicole Leigh Coaching (www.nicolenessLPC.com) Nicole strives to empower women with similar struggles to redefine and re-identify themselves, separate from their eating disorder. Through her work, she empowers women to use balance in every aspect of life to maintain lifelong recovery. When Nicole isn't blogging or counseling, she loves spending her time traveling, eating burgers, and surrounding herself with positive people.