Starvation in captivity: The alarming impact on elderly women’s health

Science and Health

Eleven elderly women have returned to Israel from Hamas captivity, while one, Alma Avraham, remains in Gaza. The women returned underweight, which is particularly concerning given their advanced age.

Doctors at Wolfson Medical Center, where the abductees were treated, revealed that they arrived malnourished and bearing indicators of poor health.

“Among other issues, we observed salt imbalance disorders in their bodies,” stated Doron Menachemi, the department director.

The hospital’s deputy-director, Amir Notman, emphasized that those who were held captive without proper medical care and nutrition are at risk of life-threatening diseases.

“They suffer from untreated conditions that could endanger their lives. Some days, they received insufficient or no food at all,” he explained.

The return of the captives to the Red Cross (Credit: Flash 90)

Margarita Meshabi, the hospital’s director of returned hostages, described the abductees’ diet as mainly consisting of rice, hummus with beans, and pita bread.


“Occasionally, they were given eggs,” she added. “However, this limited diet often resulted in stomach pains, constipation, and bloating, leading some to avoid eating altogether.”

Significantly, several abductees experienced substantial weight loss during their captivity. One woman lost 20 kilograms, another nine, and one 12.

What are the health implications of a starvation diet?

Reuma Kurtz, clinical dietitian and gerontologist at Maccabi Health Services, explained the implications of such drastic weight loss for older women.

“Losing weight rapidly in a short period of time puts them at medium to high risk of malnutrition,” she explained. “This imbalance between nutritional intake and requirements affects metabolism, overall bodily function, and can lead to the development or worsening of diseases, potentially causing a breakdown of various bodily systems.”

Kurtz further highlights that in older individuals, weight loss primarily results in muscle breakdown (sarcopenia), leading to weakness, frailty, and an increased risk of falls and fractures. Reports indicate that the abductees’ limited diet lacked protein, fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals.

Moreover, abruptly increasing food consumption after a prolonged period of restricted intake can result in metabolic and fluid and mineral balance disorders, which can have severe clinical consequences affecting the respiratory, cardiac, muscular, and circulatory systems. This condition is known as Refeeding Syndrome (RS).

To aid in the nutritional rehabilitation process, a gradual return to a varied diet comprising all essential nutrients, with emphasis on quality protein sources such as beef, chicken, fish, eggs, and legumes, is necessary. Additionally, considering a multivitamin supplement may prove beneficial for their recovery.