Well, I’m back.

Hard as it is to believe, during my vacation I went a whole two weeks without writing a truly new post. That’s something that hasn’t happened in probably 12 years. Yes, as a result of the lack of original material for two weeks, my traffic appears to have taken a noticeable hit and is now lower than it’s been in several years, but you know what? For the first time I actually don’t really care that much. It was good to unplug. It’s also good to be back, though.

Although we arrived home Saturday afternoon, I remain jet lagged, and it’s also Father’s Day, which means I need to visit my Dad. Consequently, I’m going to ease myself back into the routine. And what better material to use to accomplish that than something I kept seeing starting Friday about a “Breatharian” couple that popped up in The Sun and showed up in The New York Post, among other outlets. I hadn’t written about the utterly ridiculous silliness that are the claims of so-called Breatharians in many a year, and I needed something not so stressful to get blogging again, after having considered a couple of studies that I had seen while away and decided that I was just too damned tired. However, I’m almost never too damned tired for woo like Breatharianism, and for some reason this story found its way all over the media with headlines like We Live On Air (The Sun), ‘Breatharian’ couple claim to feed on the ‘energy of the universe’ and only eat three times a week (Metro), and, of course, ‘Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food (The New York Post).

The story begins:

A “Breatharian” mom and dad of two have barely eaten for nine years as they live off “the universe’s energy.”

Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe that food and water aren’t necessary and humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe.

Castello and Ricardo — who have a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter together — have survived on little else besides a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times per week since 2008.

First of all, true “Breatharianism” involves eating nothing at all and living off of just air (and, presumably, the universe’s energy) or, as is sometimes claimed, the sun. So you can see the cracks in the story already just from the first paragraphs. Ricardo and Castello already admit to eating three times a week and claim they only consume a piece of fruit or some vegetable broth, but how reliable is that claim? After all, it’s human nature to exaggerate, particularly when it comes to one’s own virtue. People frequently exaggerate how much they exercise, how much they pray, how much they donate to charity, and the like. It’s really not too much of a stretch to question whether this couple is exaggerating how little food they eat, particularly given that neither of them appears unduly thin (or even skinny) and both appear healthy in their photos.

Of course, the “journalist” who wrote this bit of tripe, someone credited as Lauren Windle, didn’t bother to fact check a single bit of the story. She appears to have just interviewed the couple and not bothered to check with a single expert. She just took the couple’s word for it, something that’s particularly disturbing given this claim by Castello:

And Castello even practiced a Breatharian pregnancy — not eating anything during the entire nine months that she carried her first child.

The married couple of nine years claim that their “food-free lifestyle” has improved their health and emotional well-being as well as letting them spend money on traveling rather than the weekly groceries.

Oh, well, that explains it. It’s certainly desirable to save all that money one normally has to spend on the necessities of life like food, so that one can travel all over the world, producing a bunch of photos of the couple in Paris and San Francisco, along with their children. In any case, people have died trying to follow Breatharian belief systems. Just Google “Breatharian” and “starve” and it won’t take you long to find examples, including people in Switzerland, Australia, and Scotland, among others. Castello and her husband might be looking just fine and appearing healthy, but real people starve themselves to death in pursuit of the supposed spiritual and health benefits of existing on “prana.”

Why did Castello allegedly not eat anything during her entire pregnancy. She explains:

Castello explained: “I was completely open to changing my food-free lifestyle when I first became pregnant because my child came first. But I just never felt hungry, so I ended up practicing a fully Breatharian pregnancy.

“I didn’t feel the need or desire to eat solid food during the entire nine months and so I only ate five times, all of which were in social situations.”

“And I knew my son would be nourished enough by my love and this would allow him to grow healthily in my womb. I went for regular pregnancy checkups and my doctor confirmed the above-average growth of a very healthy baby boy.”

Imagine my relief to know that Castello was responsible enough to consider starting to eat during pregnancy for the good of her child. Imagine my annoyance to see Castello’s claim that she only ate five times during the entire pregnancy, which, I note, contradicts her claim that she practiced an entirely Breatharian pregnancy, go unchallenged.

How could this be, though? How could a couple like this make a claim as ludicrous as basically not eating (or at least eating quantities of food far below what is necessary to sustain life and health over the long term) and remaining healthy? After all, the diet they describe, a piece of fruit or broth three times a week (which is not nothing, but still grossly inadequate for long term survival) provides less calories than the diet of a typical inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. Hints of what is probably really going on pop up all over the article. At first I wondered if they were “tells” inserted by the reporter to let the audience know that what she was writing is complete and utter bullshit, but I kind of hate to give her that much credit. One such possible “tell” was the passage above about having a piece of fruit or vegetable or broth three times a week. Later, near the end, there is this passage in which Castello opines:

“After I gave birth to my son, I wanted to be able to explore the joy of food in small quantities with my children as they grew.”

“So during my second pregnancy, I ate a bit of fruit or vegetable broth during the nine months. It was still a lot less than the recommended intake for a pregnant woman, but I gave birth to a healthy daughter.”

“Now, Akahi and I eat very sporadically — perhaps three or four times per week at the most. I might have a few vegetables, a juice or a bite of an apple with my children. Sometimes we have a glass of water too.”

“Whenever I eat now, it’s not because I’m hungry — I just don’t remember that sensation.”

And:

Ricardo said: “Our children are aware of Breatharianism and the energy that exists in the universe and in themselves.”

“But we would never try to change them and we let them eat whatever they want — whether that be juices, vegetables, pizza or ice cream!”

“We want them to explore the different tastes and have a healthy relationship with food as they grow.”

“It would be unfair to impose Breatharianism upon our children now, but maybe as they grow, they will get deeper into the practices.”

Well, thank goodness for that! Of course, if the children are consuming juices, vegetables, pizza, and ice cream, that must mean that juices, vegetables, pizza, and ice cream are in the house. It could also mean that the parents are consuming some of those juices, vegetables, pizzas, and ice creams in quantities far greater than they let on.

I alluded to how people exaggerate how much they actually follow what they consider to be virtuous practices. There was one article I came across that didn’t just regurgitate The Sun’s article and whose author actually…oh, you know…looked at other sources, such as this article from The Guardian from nearly 20 years ago, which pointed out pretty much the same thing I did, just in more detail:

Instead, eating disorders specialists believe, some breatharians may themselves be suffering from a dietary delusion common among obese people trying to lose weight.

“Breatharianism is a fraud, but breatharians may be deluded,” says Dee Dawson, medical director of Rhodes Farm Clinic in north London, which treats young children with eating disorders. “Every obese person who comes into my surgery says, ‘Doctor, I can’t understand why I’m not losing weight – I haven’t eaten all week.’ Then I say ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘Oh, just three pieces of toast.’ ‘And lunch?’ ‘Just one sausage and few chips…’ Add it all up and they’ve eaten 2,000 calories that day.”

A piece of fruit here, some broth there, some pizza with the kids, and before you know it you have a fairly regular diet.

Of course, I can’t help but note that Breatharianism is a an excellent example, like homeopathy, where the prior probability of the claim is enough to reject it. That’s why I tend to liken the evaluation of claims of breatharianism, sungazing, or other claims that human beings can live without food or water and exist only air or the energy of the sun to prior probability in science-based medicine. For example, we know in great detail how humans produce energy from food, how much food people need to survive, and the metabolism through which humans produce energy from food. We know that humans don’t have chlorophyll or the biochemical machinery to use the energy of the sun–and even plants need nutrients. Cut off a plant’s source of nitrogen and water long enough, and eventually it will die. Based on our understanding of biochemistry and physiology, the prior probability that a human being can exist indefinitely without food and water is on the same level of ridiculousness as the claims of homeopathy.

Indeed, stepping back a bit from this one story and examining the phenomenon of Breatharianism in general, one thing you’ll notice whenever you read about “scientific” investigations of these charlatans is this. Whenever they try to isolate and observe a Breatharian to see if they really can go this long without food and water, those carrying out the experiment virtually never, ever have the Breatharian under observation in such a way that fraud can’t be ruled out or that claims of long term living without food can be rigorously validated. For example, it is claimed that a famous Breatharian named Hira Ratan Manek (commonly referred to as just “HRM”) was under “constant” observation for 411 days and did not eat or drink anything other than water. Yet nowhere have I yet been able to find publication of these findings other than on the web by someone named Dr Sudhir Shah. If you bother to read it, you’ll see that it sounds all science-y but ends up being utterly unconvincing to anyone who knows a bit about physiology and biochemistry. Another example is that of a Breatharian known as Jasmuheen, who claims to have lived years on light alone, but failed in a test on Australian television to go more than 10 days without food and water. After two days she exhibited signs of dehydration, and the network’s doctor stopped the test after four days as her health started to deteriorate.

Snopes.com, of course, notes that claims, such as those made by Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello, of being able to survive and thrive without food pop up every few years. (Actually, it’s a little more frequently than that, but these stories do pop up.) As Snopes drolly notes, “we were unable to find any evidence contradicting the body of science demonstrating humans require water and food to stay alive.” Breatharianism would be very easy to prove. All a Breatharian would have to do would be to submit to 24 hour observation for however many days it would take scientists to be convinced that they were thriving without food and water. Given that human beings can only survive around a week without water and start to show signs of dehydration after only a day or two, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be that long a period of time. If the claim is that the Breatharian can exist on water alone, the time would have to be extended to weeks, but the principle remains the same. No such successful test has ever been carried out.

This all brings us back to newspapers that credulously print such utter bollocks, to borrow a term from my British friends, given that it was a UK tabloid that appears to have originated this story. We lament the problem of “fake news” now, and it is a problem. However, it is not a new problem. I remember like this about Breatharians thriving without food coming to my attention periodically every so often since my days on Usenet, which means going back nearly 20 years. The only difference is that now such stories can travel faster than ever, thanks to social media. I know to some extent why tabloids print pseudoscientific misinformation like this: clicks and eyeballs. That doesn’t make it any less irresponsible. At least 25 years ago, Weekly World News was so obviously fake that few people who read it weren’t in on the joke. As for Bretharianism, like spoon bending, it’s utterly ridiculous but never seems to disappear.

Comments

  1. #1 Dorit Reiss
    June 19, 2017

    In the quote about her first pregnancy she says she took no solid foods. Aside from your other points about credibility, it makes me wonder what her mom-solid intake was.

  2. #2 Renate
    June 19, 2017

    Some of that breatharian nonsense has reached my newspaper as well, though a bit critical. In Utrecht a member of a breatharian community has died and the other 3 members were accused of not giving her sufficient care. They didn’t use medicine, were opposed to vaccinations and claimed to be able to live without food.
    Another breatharian commented on the group and stated they didn’t have the right mindset and were stuck in suffering.
    He practised breatharism for a very long time, being 87 and weighting 57 kilo’s. He could live without food, but ate sometimes, if his emotions drove him to it. And to top the bs, he stated a couple of hundred years ago people thought the earth was flat and now they new it wasn’t. The same would be for living without food, which also be considered as possible in the future. There is so much wrong in that, I can’t think of where to start. Of course people know for much longer the earth isn’t flat, though there are still people who think it is. One can prove the earth isn’t flat. But no-one has ever really proven it is possible to live without food. Starving people prove the opposite.

  3. #3 Dangerous Bacon
    June 19, 2017

    Gotta wonder how many “breatharians” have stashes of Hostess Twinkies and other calorie-dense forbidden foods in their closets and pantries.

  4. #4 Murmur
    UK-ia
    June 19, 2017

    This kind of mendacious, lying, utterly incredible, nonsensical manure of the bovine (or absolute bollocks) annoys me intensely.

    Why? I worked a lot with folk with eating disorders and got to observe first hand what not eating and drinking does to someone. It was not for nothing that a very experienced consultant psychiatrist of my acquaintance was often heard to describe eating disorders of the anorexic type as the most serious condition we dealt with, as it had the highest rate of fatalities.

    Breatharians and their credulous apologists can f**k right off with their dangerous nonsense.

  5. #5 Richard
    The Netherlands
    June 19, 2017

    Quite an appropriate post in the light of events here in the Netherlands, where police are investigating the death of a 62-year old woman. According to the information so far, the deceased woman starved to death, while her house companions did nothing to prevent this from happening, which makes them accountable for negligent homicide.

    Especially shocking is the group photo of these people — they very obviously do not look healthy at all, almost looking like the star cast of a Tim Burton movie…

  6. #6 Renate
    June 19, 2017

    @ Richard
    That was I was referring to.

    No they don’t look healthy and their website doesn’t look great either. 🙂

  7. #7 Richard
    The Netherlands
    June 19, 2017

    @Reante, #5
    Ah, yes, sorry for doubling up on your post… Indeed, their home page styling betrays a rather naive mindset…

  8. #8 Larry Slavens
    United States
    June 19, 2017

    Big deal. I haven’t had sex in twenty years, but you don’t hear me bragging about it. 🙂

  9. #9 Renate
    June 19, 2017

    It doesn’t matter. Your post provided the link to an article about this weird people (surrounded by dangerous madman) in English, I was to lazy to look for.

  10. #10 Jonas
    June 19, 2017

    CPS should step in and take their kids away. I don’t care that these two lunatics say that they allow their kids to eat a normal diet-no child should be raised by such complete nutcases.

  11. #11 Joseph
    The Netherlands
    June 19, 2017

    Here’s a YouTube clip about an Australian breatharian who was monitored by the Australian version of 60 minutes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnCuzUd4eC0

    The clip is from a good number of years ago and picture quality is not brilliant.

  12. #12 Christine Rose
    Ann Arbor
    June 19, 2017

    The James Randi Educational Foundation tested some of these idiots early on. The result was always that they caught someone going to McDonalds or that a doctor stopped the test. If the doctor stopped the test, the testee inevitably said that they were fine and deserved the million dollars.

    I watched the Jasmuheen segment online. That’s basically what happened; she got ill and kept insisting they let her go until she died/they admitted she had magic powers. I was surprised a TV network would fall into that trap.

    Speaking of Jasmuheen on TV, the same segment revealed that she has tea and biscuits (cookies) every day “just for the taste” and that she enjoys her husband’s gourmet cooking once or twice a week. Given that she’s sickly, weak, and anorexic, I can imagine she could be living on 7,000 kCal a week–seven time 500 in tea and cookies, two times 1,750 in gourmet meals.

    Ugh for your health though.

  13. #13 Renate
    June 19, 2017

    Yeah, they always have some form of excuse for consuming some food and still insist they don’t really need it.

    And if people really try to live without food and things go horribly wrong, it’s never the breatharian lifestyle that is to blame, but there is always something else, like not having the right attitude.
    Just like quacks always have some excuse if their method doesn’t work.

  14. #14 Eric Lund
    June 19, 2017

    Jonas@10: You got there ahead of me. That this couple claims to be practicing breatharianism while having two preschool children is one of the things that should have set off the BS detectors. Either they are starving the kids, which should bring CPS on them like a ton of bricks, or they are cleaning up after the kids and thereby putting the lie to their claims of breatharian living.

  15. #15 Wzrd1
    June 19, 2017

    This tripe popped up in my Twitter feed the other day.
    Suffice it to say, the responses were scathing.

  16. #16 Rich Bly
    Ocean Shores
    June 19, 2017

    Remember all you need is: Love, Love, Love

  17. #17 Art
    June 19, 2017

    I’ve met a few people who bought into some or all of this crap. All of them seemed like they needed the general thrust of the message to be true for their world-view and self-image to work.

    It was variously explained to me that just as mankind one used wood and coal for fuel and that we are shifting to wind and solar so too humanities human bodies would shift from physical food to sunlight and spiritual food.

    Some of this was centered on a clique of coeds who, evidently, started with simple healthy eating and exercise and became more fanatical as they tried to outdo one another. What started as a salad with most meals and a half-hour of moderate exercise went on to mostly vegetarian, to strictly vegetarian, to vegan, extended fasting, and breatharianism.

    Exercise went from moderate to vigorous, to brutal with one girl doing three hours of calisthenics or a half-marathon every day. The exercise routing fell off when they shifted to yoga when they went vegan and largely stopped as they simply lacked the energy.

    The good news is that a majority of these women, particularly those on the periphery of the clique, tended to cheat. As in a vegetarian that likes the occasional cheeseburger.

    The sad news was that the queen bee damn near killed herself. She collapsed on the stairs, broke several de-calcified bones, and went into a coma because she had borked her electrolytes. While hospitalized she was diagnosed with anorexia which was possibly linked to emotional and sexual abuse since she was six. She faced years of therapy and health issues. She never, as far as I know, returned to school.

    Sadder still is that she was so very smart with real leadership skills. She would have made a great politician or entrepreneur.

    So many of these people are using the delusions of extreme diet control as compensation for deep emotional scars. These really need it to be true that a human can live on sunlight and love.

  18. #18 Jazzlet
    June 19, 2017

    Some people really believe that liquids can not be food. Me and one of my housemates won a tenner (a lot of money for a student in the early eighties) off another housemate after he insisted we would die if we didn’t eat solid food. We bet him we would be fine if we ate just liquids for a week and of course he had to pay up.

  19. #19 Eric Lund
    June 19, 2017

    Remember all you need is: Love, Love, Love

    Depends whom you ask. Some will tell you that All You Need Is Cash. Though perhaps the sequel, Can’t Buy Me Lunch, would be more appropriate for Breatharianism.

  20. #20 Eric Lund
    June 19, 2017

    The good news is that a majority of these women, particularly those on the periphery of the clique, tended to cheat. As in a vegetarian that likes the occasional cheeseburger.

    Good for them. I would agree that Jimmy Buffett, for all his faults, is a better role model than Jasmuheen.

    A sad story about that one woman, though. A reminder that these things do have real consequences.

  21. #21 Rich Woods
    June 19, 2017

    @Jazzlet #18:

    As students in the early 80s we’d regularly do the same thing with beer, no bets required…

  22. #22 Rich Bly
    Ocean Shores
    June 19, 2017

    Eric,

    I was being hopefully very sarcastic. The good thing about the Breatharianism movement is that it is self eliminating in more ways than one. Maybe it should be called the self cannibalism movement.

  23. #23 Denice Walter
    June 19, 2017

    @ Art;
    That’s a sad story.

    I have also experienced ( not in my professional role) young women who buy into woo- as a means of dieting. Esp. forms of restrictive vegan/ vegetarian regimes.
    I do believe that many woo-meisters attract clients through their understanding of this phenomenon:
    ” You can never be too rich or too thin ” can be their motto.

  24. #24 Eric Lund
    June 19, 2017

    Some people really believe that liquids can not be food.

    This would be news to actual Bavarians who have told me that beer is legally considered food there.

    I don’t know if any of these things were widely available when and where you were a student, but a milkshake/frappe/lassi would also qualify as liquid food.

  25. #25 Carol Douglass
    United States
    June 19, 2017

    I found this great blog while looking up another ridiculous “alternative” “medical” treatment–Feldenkreis. There’s no evidence at all that there are any health benefits to it at all, yet one of the most prestigious medical schools/hospitals in the country (US) has 2 clinics that advocate and offer Feldenkreis and Rolfing and yoga and breathing as solutions to chronic pain. That’s what the pain management clinic is about, and there’s a whole clinic called “integrative medicine” that does the above plys acupuncture–another so-called treatment with no medical science behind it.
    Mainly, I’m very disappointed that even at a center dedicated to medical research, teaching, and treatment buys into this nonsense, presumably because there’s a market for it.

  26. #26 Rich Bly
    Ocean Shores
    June 19, 2017

    Having lived six weeks with a broken jaw any food can be made into an liquid. Some liquefied tastes as horrible as it looks.

  27. #27 shay simmons
    June 19, 2017

    Some people really believe that liquids can not be food
    This would be news to actual Bavarians who have told me that beer is legally considered food there.

    My late father used to refer to beer as “fluessiges Brot.”

  28. #28 herr doktor bimler
    June 19, 2017

    Another breatharian commented on the group and stated they didn’t have the right mindset and were stuck in suffering.

    One can only invite these people to step off the roof of a 12-storey building, so we can see which ones didn’t have the right mindset and were stuck in gravity.

  29. #29 Bob
    June 19, 2017

    In fact, I’d say it’s downright irresponsible of all breatharians NOT to submit themselves to rigorous scientific study. If they really believe themselves they should know they are sitting on the cure to world hunger and clean water access.

  30. #30 Anonymous Coward
    June 19, 2017

    By the way, a typical bottle of beer has 154 calories. That’s roughly the same as two slices of bread. A six-pack thus represents 924 calories. Two six-packs thus have almost enough food energy to get a typical person through a day, though obviously, a beer-only diet is not recommended for various reasons. XD

  31. #31 Gilbert
    June 19, 2017

    Well, they could be yogaing there filter feeding on gnats and flies for protein; and in a biological process which requires some energy, fat can be converted to water (brown adipose??).

  32. #32 TBruce
    June 19, 2017

    So when they develop starvation ketosis, is it okay to refer to them as “bad breatharians”?

  33. #33 Michael J. Dochniak
    Minnesota
    June 19, 2017

    I was hoping for a masterpiece on your return from vacation. 🙁

    How long must we wait before your back to the American version of Orac?

    …a patient and understanding MJD.

  34. #34 Eric Lund
    June 20, 2017

    One can only invite these people to step off the roof of a 12-storey building

    The first 11.5 stories are no problem. It’s that bit at the end that will get you.

    I’m reminded of Alan Sokal’s comment on revealing that his article in Social Text was a hoax: “[A}nyone who thinks the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to transgress those conventions from my apartment window. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

  35. #35 aairfccha
    June 21, 2017

    @Gilbert:Just about any food contains hydrogen and produces metabolic water when digested – but that yields energy, not costs it.

  36. #36 Gilbert
    June 21, 2017

    Ahh. I see, aairfccha. THX. Of course, the extra breathing that must be done to acquire the extra oxygen needed for the process and to blow off the excess CO2 liberated probably looses much of the produced water anyways.

    Sorry, Breatharians — ask a camel.

  37. #37 Jane Ostentatious
    June 21, 2017

    I hope none of these pretentious fools inflict this on their pets.

  38. #38 Barry Wilson
    June 21, 2017

    While their website that offers courses for outlandish amounts has a caveat at the bottom This content is NOT to encourage anyone to stop eating.

    I learned that for the right price one can
    Discover and be transformed by the amazing healing secrets of Akahi Breatharian Method

    Plus this additional bonus that is not at all fraud
    includes overcoming perceived limitations of science!

    Good thing they revealed they eat food and were not making fantastical claims.

  39. #39 shay simmons
    June 21, 2017

    Anonymous Coward – I remember reading an article on anorexia in which one of the subjects worked briefly as a bartender before her recovery. She believed that the small amount of beer she consumed during her shift is what kept her from starving herself to death.

  40. #40 Chris
    June 22, 2017

    Well, beer is essentially liquid bread. It is just that the yeast beasties added alcohol instead of fluffiness.

  41. #41 JustaTech
    June 22, 2017

    Does this remind anyone else of Starvation Heights and the infamous “fasting cure”?
    I mean, these people don’t look like they’re starving, but it does make me think of the general concept of “food rejection as a path to physical/spiritual wellness”.

  42. #42 dingo199
    June 23, 2017

    If the claim is that the Breatharian can exist on water alone, the time would have to be extended to weeks, but the principle remains the same. No such successful test has ever been carried out.

    The IRA conducted their own experiment in 1981 in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.
    It “successfully” showed that food was essential for human life, since 10 hunger strikers ultimately died after refusing anything but water and small quantities of bread.

  43. #43 Gemman Aster
    June 24, 2017

    Glad to see you are back! I really hope the last few weeks was not the start of a withdrawal taper, slowly preparing us for your abdication from woo-blogging altogether? What with Mr Crislip packing it in so suddenly and without warning the other day it would be too much to loose Orac as well!

    I find it very interesting that we have not had a single raving lunatic in the comments defending this Breatharian codswallop. Is it possible that there are some brands of insanity even the ‘Natural News’ brigade will not sign up for?

  44. #44 Politicalguineapig
    June 25, 2017

    Gemman: No, I just think this post didn’t trip anyone’s google alerts. Also, I think most Breatharians swear off things like electricity.

  45. #45 Denice Walter
    June 25, 2017

    Whilst I think I didn’t run into any Breatharians, I imagine that I spent most of the day in one of the most woo-fraught towns in existence…. Sebastopol, CA
    and I survived to tell the tale.