While Orac’s away, the Breatharians will play…

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.