empty plate
Everybody knows what happens when you don't eat for a long enough period of time. We're also familiar with many of the symptoms that occur along the way, such as mental fatigue, hunger pangs, fat and muscle loss, etc. However, many of us have never experienced true hunger, and we're not familiar with many of the strange and horrific symptoms that are caused by long-term malnutrition. But if you're a prepper, you better familiarize yourself with these symptoms right quick.

That's because the symptoms of starvation are often a gap in the knowledge and experience of the average prepper. We prep specifically so that we'll never experience hunger, and unfortunately, that means that many of us don't prepare ourselves for being hungry. We need to remember that no matter how much food we stock up on, or how much food we can grow, or how superb our hunting and foraging skills are, we may still go hungry someday. Horrible things happen to the best of us, and we need to prepare for the worst rather than just preparing to avoid the worst.

And for starvation, that means getting to know the symptoms. I guess it's less about preparing for them, as it is about bracing for them. Being hungry and tired is bad enough. You don't need these symptoms to catch you off guard when you're already in a desperate mental state from the throes of hunger. Let's begin with one of the more mild symptoms.


In 1950, a starvation study was conducted on 36 healthy male volunteers, who had to cut their caloric intake in half. Even though they weren't completely starving (they had just over 1,500 calories a day for 8 weeks) it was enough for them to start to obsess over food. You've probably seen this symptom in people who are trying out a new fad diet.

The men quickly began to fantasize about eating. It was all they thought about and all they ever talked about. Restaurant menus and cook books fascinated them. Meals that normally took a few minutes to eat now took several hours as they savored every bite. They would vicariously enjoy watching other people eat, and they would even sneak food away so that they could quietly enjoy it in a ritualized fashion. They also mixed their foods in ways that would that would seem unappetizing to a well fed person. Hunger can definitely change your mental relationship with food, sometimes in very strange ways.

Depression and Anxiety

Obviously, starvation will lead to mental fatigue, but it does more than that. You won't just feel tired, you'll likely experience depression, anxiety, impatience, and nervousness. Your brain will start to have trouble producing serotonin, which can wreak havoc on your emotional stability. Ultimately though, apathy will set in. Nothing will make you want to quit more than being hungry, which is when you should be fighting harder than ever to survive. Fortunately you may also experience...

Mental Clarity

This often comes as a shock to most people, but starving yourself doesn't always lead to complete exhaustion, depression, and irritability. In many cases it does the exact opposite, for a time anyway. Call it an evolutionary attribute. When you're running dangerously low on energy, your brain starts to dig deep to find a solution. You'll have better focus, better memory, sharper senses, and more alertness. In some cases, you may even stop feeling hungry as your body fully taps into your body fat for energy.

Of course, none of this will last forever. If you don't find food during this burst of energy, you'll burn out, and probably go back to feeling depressed and apathetic.

Vitamin Deficiency

When most people think of starvation they tend to imagine someone with a stick figure and rail thin limbs. However, starvation doesn't just make you lose weight. It eventually destroys every basic function in your body, most of which are caused by a lack of vitamins and minerals. Here's a short list of conditions that you might come down with in the latter stages of starvation:

BeriBeri: If you go without vitamin B1 (thiamine) for too long, you may experience vomiting, diarrhea, swelling body tissues, impaired vision, confusion, tremors, partial paralysis, and so many others.

Pellagra: If you don't get any vitamin B3 (niacin) you'll experience dementia, aggression, sensitivity to light, insomnia, nerve damage, and horrific skin legions.

Anemia: Your blood cells are made of multiple nutrients, and if you stop receiving a few of them like B12 and Iron, your body will simply stop producing enough blood. Having anemia is kind of like losing a lot of blood from a traumatic injury, and while initial symptoms are mild, in its later stages it can kill you. Just about every cell in your body needs blood on a regular basis, so without enough of it, every bodily function will be hindered.

Scurvy: Without enough vitamin C you will start to feel uneasy, depressed, and fatigued. But before long you'll also experience soft gums, loose teeth, bleeding from multiple orifices, yellow skin, and bone pain. Eventually death is caused by excessive blood loss.

Refeeding Syndrome

And finally, one of the more deadly symptoms of starvation is often the most unexpected. It's also the most important for everyone to learn about, because unlike enduring weeks or months of poor nutrition, refeeding syndrome can happen to anyone. That's because it only takes 3-5 days without food to make someone a candidate for this condition.

In a nut shell, after a few days without food your digestive system stops functioning properly as your body adapts to feeding on itself for sustenance. If you eat a large meal in that state, which you are apt to do if you're starving, it can be rather shocking for your body. It can cause heart problems, breathing problems, seizures, paralysis, and even death. If you're ever in a situation where you haven't eaten for several days and you finally reach a food source, you have to resist the urge to gorge yourself. Eat only very small amounts of food, and consume progressively more from day-to-day until you can finally eat a normal diet.