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Updated: Feb 17

What is Starvation syndrome?

Starvation syndrome occurs after a prolonged period of starvation or food deprivation.

An experiment called the Minnesota Starvation experiment looked at the impact of food restriction. This was called "semi-starvation" - in fact, it was around 1600 calories. Modern day diets or healthy eating regimes are usually less than 1600 calories!

Starvation syndrome from under-nourishment can occur in individuals of any shape, size, and gender. It is generally seen in people who have an eating disorder or disordered eating.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex psychological disorders that affect every aspect of a someone's life. It changes a person’s behaviour especially involving food, exercise and eating.

It can distort thoughts and may encourage and trigger distorted behaviours. They can experience physical changes, symptoms and deteriorating physically. It can cause a lot of emotional distress and chaos.

There are different types of eating disorders. Including Anorexia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Bulimia Nervosa.

The physiological and psychological effects of semi-Starvation are presented in people with an eating disorder of any kind. Starvation syndrome is also seen in people whose nutritional intake is poor, unbalanced and irregular.

It has a negative effect on the person's physical and psychological health, social changes, emotional changes, and behavioural changes towards food and eating.

What are the symptoms of starvation syndrome?

Physical Changes

  • Heart rate and blood pressure is slowed down because of the high vagal tone and the body dosent want to burn additional calories then necessary on extra heartbeats on resting

  • Bone marrow failure due to the bone marrow being replaced by a non-cell producing goo which is fartty and geuiscent causing the body to stop producing blood cells

  • Dizziness and fatigue

  • Dry skin and hair loss is caused by malnourishment, the person’s skin becomes dry and fragile, thier facial skin developes lines, loss of fat in cheeks, the skin starts to shag and look hallow. Hair loss called Telogen effuvolium can cause loss of 50 percent of scalp hair density causing hair loss

Social changes

  • Withdrawn from social activities could be due to fatigue and other health implications

  • Not eating in public or with family and friends this could be due to having a fear of eating or fear of judgement from friends and family

  • Having poor hygiene from the feeling of fatigue

Emotional changes

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Depression

Behavioural changes

  • Constantly thinking about food

  • Very precisely planning out every detail of your next meal

  • Increased hunger or binge eating

  • Eating food at a very fast pace or eating food very slowly

What is the difference between a person who has an eating disorder and someone whose food has been restricted when it comes to starvation syndrome?

The distinction between people who are starved of food compared to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is they have fears about their body, weight, eating and their overall appearance. When that individual is given an opportunity to eat they might continue to restrict their food and not meet the nutritional requirements.

Whereas a person who does not have an eating disorder but has been starved will take the opportunity to eat enough for there nutrional requirements. That’s why it is very important when recovering from an eating disorder to seek psychological help to overcome that fear of food.

What is the treatment for starvation syndrome?

Starvation syndrome is a medical condition. Reintroducing nutrition is essential for recovering from starvation or malnourished patients of any size and shape. It can be a hard and slow journey for recovery depending on the person.

It could be learning how to eat energizing and satisfying meals at regular time periods throughout the day free from thoughts of food restriction. For others it could be addressing there feelings and emotions through a therapist or a holistic approach to learn how to cope with their emotions so they do not turn to bingeing and purging as there way of managing these feelings.

There can be medical complications of the recovery process if its not over seen by a medical proffesional. An example is Refeeding syndrome. It is a dangerous development of low phosphorus and other electrolyte levels in the blood and fluid shifts into body tissue, this can occur when a starved person begins to consume nutrition.

Can you have starvation syndrome but not be underweight?

A person of any shape and size and weight can have starvation syndrome. It is not limited to people who are underweight.

Starvation syndrome is caused when there is an insufficient amount of energy intake for an extended period of time.

What should you do if you have symptoms of Starvation syndrome?

  • Seek out a medical professionals help for blood tests. At Ease Nutrition Therapy, support with us includes helping you get this medical support. And/or supporting you with what else you might need, such as inpatient treatment

  • Confide in a friend or family member for emotional support

  • Further your knowledge on eating disorders. We recommend Sick Enough by Dr. Jennifer Gauidini*. This explains the medical side of eating disorders, and many find it super helpful.

*This is an affiliate link. Any sales made using this link will bounce-back a small percentage to us, at no charge to you.


  1. North Metropolitan Health Service (2018)

  2. Bodywhys (2022)

  3. Gaudiani, J.L. (2019)


We are a specialist eating disorders and disordered eating online clinic. We support people with troubled relationships to food with expert Nutrition Counselling.

Founded by Shannon Western in 2019. The team has grown to welcome wonderful Dietitians and Nutritionists all to help you feel better with food.

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