What are the Effects of Starvation?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2019
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Starvation is one of the most deadly conditions on the planet; according to some studies, the effects of starvation play a major role in between one-third and one-half of all worldwide deaths of children under the age of five. By depriving the body of nutrition, starvation slowly allows the body to devour its own reserves, including muscle, fat, and organs, up to the point of complete system shut-down and death. Understanding how starvation affects the body is important to recognizing the signs of malnutrition and preventing a growing nutrition-based problem from worsening beyond repair.

The body is an effective storage device for fats, nutrients, and other important components. These stores are regulated by nutrition in the form of food, beverages, and vitamin and mineral supplements. When lack of nutrition occurs, the body quite quickly turns to stored reserves, beginning with glycogen, in order to keep vital functions up to par. As the body begins to devour more and more stored components to keep running, the physical effects of starvation become apparent.

One of the first effects of starvation to occur is a drop in metabolism. In order to maximize efficiency, the body protects its insulating fat stores by consuming muscle stores instead, using these reserves to make up for the lack of calorie intake. Dropping metabolism can lead to feelings of fatigue, decreased capacity for activity, and mental sluggishness.


Since the body is busy keeping vital systems going, many non-vital functions slow or cease. Hormone production is often disrupted, leading to decreased sex drive and a lower fertility rate. Women who have passed the age of puberty may stop menstruating entirely, or experience irregular periods. Malnutrition and starvation, therefore, can have serious developmental effects on near-pubescent children even after recovery, as normal hormonal functions may be temporarily or permanently thrown off track.

The effects of starvation on the brain cause a lack of concentration, loss of motor skills, and increased likelihood of anxiety and depression. As the condition progresses, brain function decreases, leaving the victim in a state of fatigue or torpor. Apathy continues to increase, until the person may no longer be able to attempt to find food or survive.

Initial weight loss will quickly turn to emaciation because of the effects of starvation. The limbs become extremely thin as muscle and fat stores are depleted, while the eyes and face begin to appear sunken. Lack of vital proteins can lead to the development of edemas, which appear as large swollen areas. The stomach may protrude enormously, as part of a syndrome known as kwashiorkor.

Starvation is frequently a result of famine in rural or developing regions, but may also be a result of eating disorders such as anorexia, or fasting without careful medical supervision. While the effects can often be reversed up to a point, acute starvation can cause serious organ damage and often leads to long-term health conditions including cardiovascular problems. If a person, particularly a child, is exhibiting signs of starvation, it is important to alert proper authorities. Unattended, starvation leads inexorably towards death.


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Post 3

The effects can also depend on what kind of starvation is happening. Kwashiorkor, for example, is what happens when people go without protein for long periods. It happens a lot of developing countries where people can only get hold of grains for their daily meal, like rice or millet and they can't get meat or nuts or anything that would provide protein.

They might be eating huge bowls of rice, but will still show symptoms of starvation.

With some types of eating disorders people will be vomiting up food before they can get much nutrition out of it, so they might show odd symptoms as well.

Post 2

@umbra21 - I've had a couple of friends with anorexia nervosa and the thing is, people can survive for long periods without food, but they can't really live. Going without food causes all kinds of long term health issues, particularly when it occurs while someone is still maturing.

It's always kind of baffled me, because I can't imagine going without food for long on purpose, but I know it's more about control than about looks.

I actually would recommend that people take note of the symptoms of starvation because they can also serve as the signs of eating disorders. And it's incredible how many people out there need help.

Post 1

It's actually amazing how long the body can last without food. When you consider that food is the basis for almost every single building block in our bodies, we actually do quite well without it for fairly long periods. Unlike some other kinds of birds and animals that basically have to eat all the time or they die very quickly.

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