What Happened After the Most Dangerous Study of All Time

It tells us why fad diets can have lasting effects

Michael Easter

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Photo: Wallace Kirkland/Getty Images

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the most dangerous studies of all time and how it can tell us everything we need to know about weight loss.

In that study, which occurred at the height of World War II, 36 men entered a lab to starve. The scientists wanted to understand the effects of starvation so they could help starving people in war-torn Europe.

Many readers asked me what happened to the men after the study. It’s a great question.

The scientists began refeeding the men to return them to a healthy weight. What happened next and in the years after reveal the consequential long-term effects that weight loss can have on our bodies and minds.

This is what happens once we’ve lost weight — and even after we’ve regained it:

We’re more likely to binge eat

Before the experiment, the men said they rarely overate and never binge ate. This all changed during the refeeding. The men consumed an average of 11,000 calories on the days they were allowed to eat anything they wanted. That’s equal to 20 Big Macs.

More than 30 percent of the men admitted to binge eating (defined as not being able to control oneself from eating large amounts of food in a short period). Ten percent admitted to binge eating enough that they threw up. One man ate so much that he had to go to the hospital for extreme gastric distention.

The idea that significant weight loss can lead to binge eating has played out in other examples. Canadian WWII vets held captive in German POW camps reported more binge eating than other vets. The more weight those POWs lost in the camps, the more often they binged later in life.

What we learned: After we lose a significant amount of weight, our brain responds by sending out mega cravings for calorie-dense items. Meanwhile, it also reduces the hormones that signal fulness. It’s a defense mechanism that compels us to overeat and regain the lost weight.

This phenomenon also plays out in smaller ways: A team at the NIH recently found that for every 2 pounds a person loses, their…

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Michael Easter

Author of The Comfort Crisis // Professor // Writing about physical + mental health, psychology, and living better 1x week // eastermichael.com