Content warning: eating disorders
In November 1944, 36 young men opted to participate in a nearly yearlong experiment on the psychological and physiological effects of starvation rather than go to war. It came to be known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
The men spent six months facing a controlled semistarvation, with calories capped at 1,570 per day across two meals — tortuous restrictions that may have made some participants wish they’d chosen the war. The men were riddled with fatigue, irritability, depression, apathy and, most of all, an obsession with food. Many of the participants talked and dreamt only of food and hoarded cookbooks and cooking utensils. After rehabilitation, many of the men found work in the food industry, as servers or chefs.
No legitimate research institution will ever replicate the flagrantly unethical Minnesota Starvation Experiment. But nearly 80 years later, psychologists and researchers still draw from the research for their practice, especially when treating patients suffering from disordered eating patterns.
While the men in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment were forced to restrict their calories, many modern-day patients have fallen deep into the trap of wellness culture — diet culture rebranded, repackaged and resold for mass consumption. While the phrase ‘diet culture’ triggers alarm bells, wellness culture is much more deceitful.
Many of the trends that compose wellness culture — intermittent fasting, strict veganism, juicing or sugar-free baking — appear ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ to the untrained eye. But according to sports dietician Wendy Sterling and licensed therapist Signe Darpinian, wellness culture is a key driver behind the high rates of disordered eating exhibited in teens and adults. Both Sterling and Darpinian have researched and worked on eating disorders extensively and co-authored a book on helping teens with eating disorders.
“People have gotten the message that diets are taboo, but now what we’re seeing is diet culture masquerading as ‘wellness’ and ‘health,’ ” Sterling said. “Wellness culture is really sneaky.”
In practice, disordered eating often presents as a fierce adherence to food rules without any deviation or flexibility. It can interfere with someone’s general sense of enjoyment in life, dissuading them from partaking in social activities or travel that might force them to relinquish control over their food. Affected people might bring their own food to a social setting, comment on other people’s food or experience increased anxiety when offered food that doesn’t match their definition of ‘healthy.’
“If you are only baking almond flour, applesauce brownies, then you begin to fear sugar and gluten and have very extreme rules about what kinds of foods you will and will not eat,” Sterling said. “That makes it really hard to go to a party, a friend’s house, to travel or go to a dining hall.”
Even the practice of collecting recipes on Pinterest boards or obsessively scrolling through the food side of TikTok can sometimes signify a larger problem for those exhibiting other symptoms of an eating disorder. Similar to how participants in the Minnesota Experiment hoarded cooking utensils and recipe books, digital recipe hoarding can be a manifestation of a destructive fixation on food.
These are the red flags, but according to Darpinian, the yellow flags begin waving as soon as someone starts labeling certain foods as acceptable and others as off-limits.
“When food is neutral, when ice cream equals broccoli, your body really does have the tendency to crave what it needs versus what you’re not letting it have,” Daprinian said. “We really get in the way, we disembody ourselves and we make all these food decisions from the chin up.”
When a patient visits Darpinian for disordered eating and depression, Darpinian will often focus on remediating the disordered eating before addressing the depression. Unless the depression predates the onset of the eating disorder, once the caloric deficit closes, the symptoms of depression tend to fade. Treating depression through talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or medication before addressing an underlying eating disorder is often unsuccessful — an undernourished brain is simply too rigid and unresponsive to heal.
Patients in a disembodied state ignore what their body is asking for, and instead regulate food using exterior metrics like calorie counting or restrictive dieting. Against a backdrop of pastel nutrition infographics and detox tea advertisements, it is easy to lose sight of what “health” even is.
According to Darpinian, de-emphasizing the role of food in our overall health might help us reground our eating habits and regain trust in our bodies’ cues. While nutrition is important, so is pleasure; when we allow our bodies to self-regulate, they will know how to strike this balance. In practice, this means listening to food cravings, eating intuitively and most of all, not obsessing over past or future food choices.
“Why are we not defining health in a much more expansive way? The people we’re around, the thoughts that we think, the sleep that we get, our movement,” Darpinian said. “There’s all this fear — the fear is unhealthy.”
And unfortunately, the fear can be cyclical. Avoidance of food drives more fear, leading to caloric deficits, deprivation and in turn, more fear. It doesn’t take a drastic deficit to produce cascading mental health effects.
“Caloric restriction affects mood. We will see that someone may be more irritable, depressed, anxious without a sufficient amount of nutrition,” Sterling said, also noting that adequate nutrition enhances the drug efficacy for patients that take psychiatric medications.
Healing from disordered eating requires solutions that might seem radical under the modality of wellness culture. But these seemingly radical shifts are actually quite simple once someone decides they want to foster food freedom and opt-out of wellness culture. UC Berkeley students who wish to reclaim a positive relationship with food are encouraged to visit University Health Services at the Tang Center and speak with a highly trained staff member within the Eating Disorders Treatment Team, or EDTT.
According to Darpinian and Sterling, who work closely with the EDTT, addressing disordered eating involves fostering trust in one’s own body. It hinges on an acceptance of set point weight theory, which postulates that bodies prefer to maintain weight within a specific range determined by genetic and environmental factors.
Set point weight theory can be liberating for those who are tired of constantly seeking change; healing is radical and resistant against a wellness culture that insists we must shrink.
According to the research, science and psychiatric practice, our bodies know how to take care of themselves — so long as we let them.