The Bizarre ‘Breatharianism’ Fad Diet

“You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice.” —Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

In A Nutshell

Throughout the world, people are preaching the concept of “breatharianism”— the notion that the human body requires only air to survive. Although it seems ridiculous at face value, many are lulled into the idea by mystics who seemingly never need to eat or drink. Tragically, experimentation with breatharianism has led to several deaths.

The Whole Bushel

Diet fads can be downright wacky, from the carb-free Atkins diet to the Master Cleanse (a stomach-turning fast that involves drinking lemon water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper). But no diet is as extreme as that of a breatharian—a person who believes that humans can survive on air alone. This practice comes from the Hindu notion that the body absorbs “prana” or life force through breathing and that food and water are unnecessary luxuries. A healthy person can go several weeks without food eating before facing lethal consequences, but more than a few days without water is most assuredly deadly.

One of the major proponents of this movement is an Australian woman named Ellen Greve. In the 1990s, Greve took on the name “Jasmuheen” and began preaching breatharianism. It is believed that her publications have at least indirectly contributed to several deaths, including that of Verity Linn, a 49-year-old woman whose corpse was found in a tent in Scotland next to a diary detailing Jasmuheen’s teachings.

The Australian version of 60 Minutes challenged Jasmuheen in 1999 to demonstrate her ability to go one week without food and water. Predictably, it did not go well—by the second day, she had become acutely dehydrated and her blood pressure soared. She claimed that these ill effects were the result of polluted air, so the film crew moved her out into the country. By the fourth day, she’d lost over 4.5 kilograms (10 lb), her pulse doubled, and various other symptoms pointed to imminent kidney failure. A doctor looked her over and advised the film crew that they would be liable if something happened to Jasmuheen. The experiment was stopped.

Others have seemingly proven more successful, including Indian sadhu Prahlad Jani, who claims he has not had anything to eat or drink since 1940. Jani was tested in 2003 at Sterling Hospitals in Ahmedabad, India, and for 10 days, he appeared not to drink or eat anything. However, his weight dropped, casting doubt on his claims. He was tested a second time and observed over a period of 15 days by three dozen people, including government researchers. Again he appeared to consume nothing. Precisely how Jani is gaming the system is unknown, but it would only take a matter of seconds to quickly gulp down water or bits of food.

Experimenting with breatharianism even once can be deadly, and many wonder how anyone could fall for such a bizarre concept. The answer is that it is pitched in the fashion of a cult, to overcome common sense. Actress Michelle Pfeiffer admitted in 2013 that during the early days of her career, she was a member of a breatharian group, and was broken out of it when she met her first husband.

Show Me The Proof

Yahoo News: Fresh-air dietician fails TV show’s challenge
The Sydney Morning Herald: Michelle Pfeiffer: The day I realised I was part of a cult
ABC News: Scientists Baffled by Prahlad Jani, Man Who Doesn’t Eat or Drink
How Stuff Works: How long can you go without food and water?