The Effects of Lack of Food

By W.R. Aykroyd, The Conquest of Famine, Chapter 2

Summarized by: Josef Skoldeberg


Famine is many times discussed in terms of area, duration, number of people affected, the scarcity and cost of food, and death rate.  But many times the reality of famines are overlooked, it comes down to that tons of miserable people suffering from starvation are physically and emotionally damaged.  The fact is that in a famine people do not just all of a sudden lay down and die, it is a horrible often prolonged death that these people are put through.


One obvious result of starvation is weight loss.  The body reacts differently to different levels of weight loss.  Humans can relatively safely handle up to a ten percent weight loss, physical energy and fitness are not impaired at this point but a strong sense of hunger is felt.  Beyond this point the body weakens and begins to adapt itself in various ways.  This stage is usually marked by decrease in activity and the sufferer begins to rest considerably longer.  The body will start to get rid of more weight so that less energy is needed to maintain vital processes and to move the lighter body.  Once 15 to 20 percent of normal body weight is lost the victim will move into a state of semi-starvation and is no longer capable of much.  In this state, besides the physical signs of weight loss and weakness, depression and apathy will also set in. 


According to Alexander Porter, Principal of the Medical College in Madras during the 1870s, when a person is at two-thirds of their total body weight the body has reached a point where just a slight negative circumstance can push the person to death.  This also depends on your surroundings, Porter for example was studying the South Indian Tamils but during the Dutch famine of 1944-45 people where living with up to 40 percent weight loss.  In fact during the Dutch famine, which was due to the Germans cutting off supplies, the government continually moved the percentages of weight loss up for people receiving rations.  At first rations where given to people who had lost 25 percent of their normal weight, but as food supplies tightened it was moved to 33 percent.  The amount of reserve stores a person’s body has will directly influence resistance to starvation.  A man who must go without food can obtain about 3 kg of protein and 6.5 kg of fat.  This is enough to keep him going for about 45 days assuming that he will have plenty of liquids to drink.  Going without liquids will kill a person in a matter of days.  This is how political activists and others are able to go on hunger strikes for so long.


If a lack of food continues a persons pulse rate will slow, blood pressure will fall, and the heart muscle atrophies.  The last organ to loose any weight is the brain.  Speech usually remains clear but it may be slowed dramatically.  One thing that does not change and has been reported to become more acute is hearing.  This increase in acuteness is probably due to an increased sensitivity to noise and general irritability.  While the brain continues to function, serious psychological effects take place.  The main effect has been called “the persistant clamour for hunger” basically it is the obsession with things to eat.  In this late stage of hunger the victim will sleep for long hours and wake up and concentrate only on his growing weakness and ways to get food.  Normally honest people are willing to do anything to get food.  Along with a willingness to break their normal morals people also become indifferent about the welfare of others, cases have been reported where mothers have snatched food from their starving babies and fathers have fought over scraps of food with their sons.


Different societies deal with hunger in different ways.  In India, for example, “wandering” has been a sign that famine is getting serious.  During this time people will live their villages in masses hoping to find food in neighboring cities.  In Europe the situation has almost been reversed, there people leave the cities and go to the countryside in search of food.  Accounts of cannibalism during famine can be found around the globe.  Although the cases are rare because the taboo of the act is so strong in most humans that not even hunger can force them to it.  Domestic dogs and cats however become very fair game in a famine and rats become even more of a delicacy. 


Oedema or dropsy is a phenomenon seen in almost all famines.  This is the bloating effect that takes place when water accumulates in the tissue spaces outside the cells. 

No one is quite sure exactly how the condition happens.  The severity of a famine can roughly be estimated by looking at the number and seriousness of cases of oedema.  There were several bad cases of Oedema in the Irish famine during 1947.  It is thought that the condition was worsened by soup kitchens who served soup that seemed nutritious but were mainly water.  The daily consumption of a bowl of essentially hot water may have contributed to the water-logging of the sufferers. 


During starvation the body is not receiving protein, which means that enzymes and hormones are not being produced properly.  This leads to a number of health issues.  Impotence in men is normal due to the body not producing enough testosterone.  Women usually stop menstruating and puberty is delayed.  Due to the wasting away of the tissues around the orbits, many peoples eyes will stick start to stick out.  The skin becomes dry and inelastic.  Dark pigmentation can start to appear on the face and trunk, it is probably caused by a glandular disturbance.  Abnormal growth of hair on the arms and back is also a common feature found in children, and is probably also due to a glandular disturbance.

Possibly the worst effect of starvation is the failure of the digestive enzymes.  This is one of the causes of the intractable diarrhoea, which is found in so many famine victims.  There are other causes that make diarrhoea so prevalent among famine victims.  Famine victims are usually so desperate for food that they will eat just about anything from bugs to sawdust.  Many of these foods cannot be digested so they are rejected by the body and irritate the intestinal walls on their way out.  Another cause of the diarrhoea is that the intestines themselves have been depleted due to a lack of nutrition.  Anaemia and serious vitamin deficiencies also lead to serious health problems.


Disease epidemics are known to follow famines but it has not been noted that famines follow epidemics.  Disease follows disease for two main reasons.  First, under nutrition impairs the bodies defences against disease.  Secondly, the distribution of disease from person to person during famine has lead to major epidemics.  Typhus has been nicknamed “famine fever” because of its connection with famines. 


Famine affects people of all ages but it is the elderly and young whom suffer the most during a famine.  Old people tend to be helpless during famine because they cannot look for or fight for food and no one is willing to help them.  Their bodies do not allow them to take in unfamiliar foods and they are more inclined then those younger then them to give up on life.  Children, especially those under five, have specific needs for protein.  Many times children are given food but it is not high enough in protein so they  suffer anyways.