The comparative physiology of food deprivation: from feast to famine

Annu Rev Physiol. 2006;68:223-51. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.68.040104.105739.


The ability of animals to survive food deprivation is clearly of considerable survival value. Unsurprisingly, therefore, all animals exhibit adaptive biochemical and physiological responses to the lack of food. Many animals inhabit environments in which food availability fluctuates or encounters with appropriate food items are rare and unpredictable; these species offer interesting opportunities to study physiological adaptations to fasting and starvation. When deprived of food, animals employ various behavioral, physiological, and structural responses to reduce metabolism, which prolongs the period in which energy reserves can cover metabolism. Such behavioral responses can include a reduction in spontaneous activity and a lowering in body temperature, although in later stages of food deprivation in which starvation commences, activity may increase as food-searching is activated. In most animals, the gastrointestinal tract undergoes marked atrophy when digestive processes are curtailed; this structural response and others seem particularly pronounced in species that normally feed at intermittent intervals. Such animals, however, must be able to restore digestive functions soon after feeding, and these transitions appear to occur at low metabolic costs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology
  • Body Temperature / physiology
  • Digestion / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Fasting / physiology
  • Food Deprivation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Reproduction / physiology