"The Least Healthy Diet: Breatharianism
If you're a vegetarian, you might feel morally superior to meat eaters. If you're a vegan, eschewing all animal products, you most likely turn up your nose at weak-willed vegetarians who succumb to cheese. Fruitarians, who consume only fruit, nuts, and seeds, are haughtier still. But at the very top of the holier-than-thou diet list are breatharians, who claim to subsist on nothing but air and light. They don't even need to drink water.
The most well-known advocate of breatharianism is Jasmuheen (nee Ellen Greve), a former businesswoman from Australia who claims she hasn't eaten any real food since 1993. (Her last meal was a falafel ball.) In her book Living on Light, the Source of Nourishment for the New Millennium, Jasmuheen writes about how "Ascended Masters" speak to her via cosmic telepathy and how she is able to draw upon invisible "pranic energy" for her sustenance. She boasts of having more than 6,000 followers. Because she doesn't eat, she says, she excretes only "rabbit-type droppings every three weeks."
Skeptics abound. On more than one occasion, reporters have discovered that Jasmuheen's house has food in it. She explains that the food is actually for her husband, Jess Ferguson, a vegan (as well as a convicted felon who served time for fraud). In one instance, an Australian journalist who was on the same flight as Jasmuheen was surprised to see an airline attendant ask the cult leader to confirm that she'd ordered a vegetarian meal. After initially denying that she had, she said, "Yes, I did, but I won't be eating it." (Perhaps she only wanted to save the vegetables from being eaten.)
In a 1997 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a reporter asked Jasmuheen if she'd eaten anything at all since starting her diet. She replied, "Maybe a few cups of tea and a glass of water, but now and then if I feel a bit bored and I want some flavor, then I will have a mouthful of whatever it is I'm wanting the flavor of. So it might be a piece of chocolate or it might be a mouthful of a cheesecake or something like that."
The reporter then asked her if she'd be willing to take a blood test to back up her claim that her DNA was changing shape from 2 strands to 12, in order to absorb more hydrogen. Jasmuheen answered, "Oh that depends. What I'd rather do is people go and have a look at the work of the Dalai Lama for example. Like in 1991--" The reporter interrupted her, asking her again why she wouldn't take the blood test, especially since the Australian Skeptics organization was offering her $30,000 if she could prove her DNA had changed. She said, "For blood test for DNA, I don't know. I'd have to really think about that one. I don't know what the relevance for it is."
In 1999 Jasmuheen agreed to undergo a challenge issued by 60 Minutes in Australia. She was confined to a hotel room and placed under a doctor's care. When she showed signs of high blood pressure, dehydration, and stress after only two days, she blamed it on air pollution. The show's producers moved her to a mountain retreat, where she said the air was much better. But after another two days, it was clear that she was ill: her speech was slow, her pupils were dilated, her pulse almost double. The doctor said Jasmuheen was so dehydrated that her kidneys were in danger of being damaged. 60 Minutes called off the experiment. Jasmuheen said it was the show's fault for putting her in a hotel next to a busy road at the beginning.
To date, three of Jasmuheen's followers have starved to death. One of them, 53-year-old Lani Morris of Melbourne, was seven days into the breatharian diet when she lost the ability to speak and the use of one arm. When Morris died three days later, Jasmuheen suggested that the woman was "not coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation."
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.