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Running on Empty: The Effects of Food Deprivation

on Concentration and Perseverance

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Many things interrupt people’s ability to focus on a task: distractions,

headaches, noisy environments, and even psychological disorders. To

some extent, people can control the environmental factors that make it

difficult to focus. However, what about internal factors, such as an empty

stomach? Can people increase their ability to focus simply by eating


One theory that prompted research on how food intake affects the

average person was the glucostatic theory. Several researchers in the

1940s and 1950s suggested that the brain regulates food intake in order

to maintain a blood-glucose set point. The idea was that people become

hungry when their blood-glucose levels drop significantly below their set

point and that they become satisfied after eating, when their blood-glucose

levels return to that set point. This theory seemed logical because glucose

is the brain’s primary fuel (Pinel, 2000). The earliest investigation of the

general effects of food deprivation found that long-term food deprivation

(36 hours and longer) was associated with sluggishness, depression,

irritability, reduced heart rate, and inability to concentrate (Keys, Brozek,

Henschel, Mickelsen, & Taylor, 1950). Another study found that fasting

for several days produced muscular weakness, irritability, and apathy or

depression (Kollar, Slater, Palmer, Docter, & Mandell, 1964). Since that time,

research has focused mainly on how nutrition affects cognition. However, as

Green, Elliman, and Rogers (1995) point out, the effects of food deprivation

on cognition have received comparatively less attention in recent years.

Center the title one inch from the top. Double-space




Running on Empty 4

The relatively sparse research on food deprivation has left room for

further research. First, much of the research has focused either on chronic

starvation at one end of the continuum or on missing a single meal at the

other end (Green et al., 1995). Second, some of the findings have been

contradictory. One study found that skipping breakfast impairs certain

aspects of cognition, such as problem-solving abilities (Pollitt, Lewis,

Garza, & Shulman, 1983). However, other research by M. W. Green, N.

A. Elliman, and P. J. Rogers (1995, 1997) has found that food deprivation

ranging from missing a single meal to 24 hours without eating does not

significantly impair cognition. Third, not all groups of people have been

sufficiently studied. Studies have been done on 9–11 year-olds (Pollitt et

al., 1983), obese subjects (Crumpton, Wine, & Drenick, 1966), college-age

men and women (Green et al., 1995, 1996, 1997), and middle-age males

(Kollar et al., 1964). Fourth, not all cognitive aspects have been studied.

In 1995 Green, Elliman, and Rogers studied sustained attention, simple

reaction time, and immediate memory; in 1996 they studied attentional

bias; and in 1997 they studied simple reaction time, two-finger tapping,

recognition memory, and free recall. In 1983, another study focused on

reaction time and accuracy, intelligence quotient, and problem solving

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