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Obesity and Weight Management

Signs of a person in starvation state

02/03/2004

Question:

Other than having a resting metabolic test how do you know - the physical signs of a person in a starvation state? thank you.

Answer:

Thank you for your question. In addition to a decrease in resting metabolic rate, a person in a starvation state would be producing detectable ketone bodies. Ketone bodies (actoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone) are produced by the liver when excessive amounts of fat are being oxidized and glucose availability is limiting. You would also find ketones in someone suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis or someone who has severely restricted carbohydrate intake such as on a high protein/low carbohydrate diet. The acetone would be noticeable on the breath of the individual, and ketone bodies would be found in the urine.

Depending on how long the individual had been in a state of starvation, there would be varying amounts of protein breakdown within the body. Initially, the plasma protein would be broken down followed by liver, pancreas, and intestinal mucosa. Muscle is slower to be broken down, but when fat stores are exhausted, the muscle will be broken down, and the individual may lose up to 6% of his muscle mass/day at this point.

Without food, the blood glucose level falls to fasting levels. This response leads to lowered plasma insulin levels and hypoglycemia. In severe starvation, the hypoglycemia may result in convulsions and death.

I have given you a general picture of what happens in starvation. Obviously, many other changes are occurring in the body on the cellular level. Starvation whether self-imposed or due to situations beyond one`s control is not a healthy situation.

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Response by:

Shirley A Kindrick, PhD Shirley A Kindrick, PhD
Team Leader of Comprehensive Weight Management
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University