What's it like to Starve?

Starvation is one of the most deeply rooted enemies of humankind. Much has been said on it and how to prevent it, but what happens when you're truly starving?

December 30, 2019

Chances are, if you're not in the medical field, you don't know what Pellagra is. Marasmus might sound like a type of monkey, and Kwashiorkor sounds like a city in India.

For 1 in every 10 people on this planet, these words are conditions they're living, and starvation is the cause. In 2015, it was determined that 45% of all child mortality globally was due to malnourishment. Further, correlations between nutrition and IQ have been established, meaning that early childhood nutrition had an influence on whether or not a child reached their intellectual potential.

So what's this all about?

Three things:

  1. Nutrition and starvation are linked to social stability;
  2. There are reasons to believe that the future might have less food available, and;
  3. Most of us have no idea what it's like to starve.

Famine has long been held as one of the "horsemen of the apocalypse". That's a bit dramatic for our take, but here, we're going to take an objective look at hunger, desperation, social cohesion, and the big "what if" that surrounds the security of our own food supply.

There's an often repeated mantra that 'any major city is 3 days of starvation away from anarchy'.

Is that true?

Starvation and Upheaval

Let's search the most obvious place first. If we're looking for reasons that citizens might get desperate enough to burn the social contract over a flaming police car, what's the reason?

As it turns out, the World Food Programme has identified three major precursors to food-related conflict:

  1. Agricultural resource competition;
  2. Market failure, and;
  3. Extreme weather events

Let's look at each of these with an eye on how they might influence future stability.

Agricultural Resource Competition
The Cape Town Water Crisis. Read up on it.. estimates put 1/4 cities in a similarly dangerous predicament.

This phrase doesn't inspire a second look. It's the kind of bland phrasing that we kind of think we get already, and probably aren't interested in looking a whole lot further. Truth is, of all the issues we've faced with regards to food security, this may be the most insidious. Why?


As we've discussed before, water resources are being bought at an alarming rate. Not only is drought a significant contribution to the WFP's third bullet point (weather events), but it's in direct competition with growing cities and urbanization... which require tremendous water resources to support their growth. When we think of "agricultural resource competition", let's set aside steely-eyed ranchers fighting over where their cows graze, and start thinking in terms of "who controls the water?"

While it's easy to jump the rails speculating how this may go down, one thing is for sure: if the cost of water increases, the cost of food will, too.

Market Failure

Market failures, in our estimation, are a direct and very current threat. Our economic standoff with Russia - the world's leading producer of wheat - could very likely cause economic ripples both at home and abroad.

At home, 2019 saw a wet spring and crippled US production of corn, which is a major market crop. Typically, farmers offset those losses by cultivating soy and exporting it to China, but political discord between Trump-era tariffs meant trade with China was at a standstill for most of the year. While we may not feel the direct crunch of those happenings on a short timeline, chronic disruptions could certainly change the way we access food resources.

Extreme Weather Events

Regardless of where you stand on climate change, weather is outside our control and plays a major role in the stability of food production, and there's nothing provocative or contentious about that. From the dust bowl to late spring flooding, weather may not control the 'big picture' food distribution, but it absolutely influences the costs and availability from year to year.

So what happens when these things get out of control? What if escalating political tensions in the U.S. between predominately left-leaning urbanites and rural conservatives boiled over and farmers refused to sell their products to urban areas?

How about if fuel shortages, natural disasters, or political intervention interrupt harvests or distribution?

Any of these elements alone can be significant, but when combined (such as the dust bowl and the great depression), the likelihood of conflict coalesces. As we move forward, we'll study the science of starvation so that we can illustrate one very important point:

The time to plan is not when crisis hits.

What happens when you Starve?

Without getting too far into the weeds in the science, your body is home to cellular powerplants that metabolize oxygen and carbon-based life into energy. Understanding metabolism - at least at its most basic - is crucial to staying ahead of the curve when it comes to calories. While chemical processes involved in metabolism are complex enough to be their own book, we're interested in a few critical elements. Let's give them a look.

How does gender and phenotype (physical build) affect calorie requirements?

Save this image. Print it, and put it in your notes.

One of the most important things to start with is also one of the simplest: How many calories do I need? Predictably, your gender and size play a huge role in determining this. Men and women differ in terms of their body composition, with men typically carrying a lower percentage of body fat. Fats, which are essentially stored energy, don't really require much upkeep, where as muscle does.

Therefore, the more muscular a person is, the more calories are required to keep their body from initiating a catabolic process that deconstructs existing mass for energy.  

6 hours to 3 days without food

Your body stores glucose as an energy reserve in the liver and are circulated in the blood stream, and in a normal adult, that reserve will last you between 6 hours and 3 days. Like all of the "rule of three's", after the first third of that period, your body's going to be protesting heavily, and the deficiency of calories can lead to a host of side effects that you should be aware of.

To continue supporting your most basic functions, otherwise known as your 'resting metabolic rate', a woman will need about 1400 calories, where an average man will need 1800.

So what happens if you start dipping below?

After your supply of glucose runs out, brace yourself. Your brain's primary source of energy is glucose, and as it's depleted, the brain starts turning to ketones. This process is defined by the feeling of being hungry and angry, due to your brains inability to use ketones as it does glucose... this metabolic switch is also the reason that Ketone diets often yield rapid weight gain when they're broken: your body once again becomes used to having glucose available, and goes into overdrive storing fats for energy, expecting starvation again in the future.

3 days to 3 weeks without food

The battling bastards of Bataan.

If you find yourself starving, your body will slowly break down stored tissues (fat and muscle) at a roughly equal rate. During catabolism, your body is burning tissues that chemically need very little conversion to become energy, and for a brief period you may feel very alert and vital.

Shortly after, when your body runs out of fat reserves, however, organ dysfunction and heart problems set in as electrolyte imbalances caused by a diet devoid of fats and most often leads to fatal cardiac arrest, a process that could take a week or more - depending on intake and quality of fluids.

Periodic Starvation/Semi-Starvation

Perhaps the most insidious threat of starvation comes from the reality that it won't be fast. Weeks of anguish and catabolism gives you quite a bit of time to find food. A further complication of this situation is that extreme hunger and thirst, and the resultant desperation, may lead a person to slacken their expectations of sanitation. If you're dying of thirst, how much time do you spend purifying that water before you drink it? How about cooking a buldging can of potatoes? Are you worried about what made the bulge?

Those types of things can lead to serious parasitic, viral, and bacterial infections, as well as vomiting and diarrhea, all of which erode the edges of your health.

During the semi-starvation phase the changes were dramatic. Beyond the gaunt appearance of the men, there were significant decreases in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive.

Even a drastically lowered calorie intake can have these effects. In tradition of bringing up edgy, unethical, and practically criminal psychology experiments of the World War II era, much of what we know about human psychology while diminished by starvation came from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and the subsequent "Biology of Human Starvation" written by Keys and Brozek.

The psychological effects were significant as well. Hunger made the men obsessed with food. They would dream and fantasize about food, read and talk about food and savor the two meals a day they were given. They reported fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy. Interestingly, the men also reported decreases in mental ability, although mental testing of the men did not support this belief.

Finally, while we don't see this commonly in the U.S., the long-lasting implications of malnourishment mean that the symptoms described by those men from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment follow a person through life. If you don't open any other link, the one above from the National Institute of Medicine is one of the most complete on the subject, which details the basis for our article.

In as few words as possible: 

As we take in less food, we are diminished. What does that say for your chances at finding more food?
Reintroducing Food

If you are suddenly reintroduce solid food into your diet after periods of starvation, the sudden gradient of glucose, proteins, and carbohydrates can offset the balance of electrolytes available for metabolism. This causes the body to expel the food in vomit or diarrhea.

This is crucially important, because that further depletes the body's supply of water and electrolytes, and can cause delirium, muscle spasms, and could result in cardiac arrest if sufficient amounts of phosphorus isn't present in the blood.  When reintroducing your starving body to food, start with broths and liquids and ease into solid foods by eating light foods that are high in phosphorus, such as poultry, fish, nuts, and grains... and be sure to keep your water intake up.

Take this knowledge with you. With starvation and the long term effects of malnourishment being removed from the first world living, diseases such as pellagra, marasmus, and kwashiorkor aren't common sites in the first world, you should be familiar with them as things in our world continue to change.

Food and Conflict

As desperation sets in during a famine, the same deprivation in judgment that prevents emotional outbursts in a well nourished person comes into play. Often times, conflict is the cause for situations that create starving. From Sarajevo in 1992, to Aleppo in 2019, urban sieges in conflict zones create massive disruptions outside of those identified by the World Food Programme.

While a distant and remote possibility in the present day West, it's easy to forget that major urban centers being turned into battlefields hasn't been all that far out of the norm in the last 75 years, and that trend is likely to continue.

ISG's philosophy emphasizes 'general' preparedness, rather than living a lifestyle in fear of a specific event. Within our framework, a siege like this is very likely a Type III emergency, which fundamentally changes life for an indefinite period.

It pays to consider the tactical/security elements, sustenance (food/water), and environmental aspects of this kind of emergency. The preparations you make now - even if they are simply mental maps of what you might do - will certainly help if faced with any Type III emergency.


Given the difficult nature of this article, we'll leave the conclusion up to you. Using the chart above, calculate the daily required calories for your family. How many calories do you need to find each day to keep your family from starving?

Use the following chart to get an idea of how many calories you get and from what sources.

Ask the following:

  1. Without supermarkets, where would I get my food?
  2. Could I get enough to meet my family's caloric intake for 1 week? 5 weeks? 24 weeks?
  3. What can I do to offset the demand placed on the grocery store? What can I grow or locally source?

The image to the right is from "Methods and Results of Investigations on the Chemistry and Economy of Food from the year 1895. Notice the difference between what foods were considered staples then and now.

Look at which offer the highest caloric density per pound, and consider which you could easily store over long periods of time.

Now imagine you're in New Orleans and the Levees have broke. This isn't an imaginary flight of fancy or speculation, as you probably know. It happened. So: You're stranded for the next 5 weeks with no supermarket.

Where do you get your calories?

Finally, we can synthesize all this information into two distinct categories:

1. What could happen that would cause food shortages?

2. How can we minimize their impact on our lives?



WFP USA , 2017. Winning the Peace: Hunger and Instability.World Food Program USA. Washington, D.C.

Rothstein, Rachel."Here there is no Why", Wagner College Holocaust Center. Mar 28,2015.

Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henshel, A., Mickelson, O., & Taylor, H.L. (1950). The biology of human starvation, (Vols. 1–2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002. Section 30.3, Food Intake and Starvation Induce Metabolic Changes. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22414/

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