The desire to eat a healthy diet is a universal phenomenon, and there is no shortage of diets claiming to offer the secret to a healthy life. Most of these diets are based in some sound science, but they all have some shortcomings. This is why it is important to consult with a doctor or nutrition specialist before undertaking any systematic dietary approach.
But there is one diet which no legitimate health professional will give sanction to: inedia, otherwise known as fasting. With this diet, a person does not consume anything at all, or at least only consumes a minimum of food or water, as it is believed that sustenance can come from (most commonly) sunlight or a mysterious internal nutritional source. This belief is perhaps most famously associated with the religious movement called “Breatharianism,” which claims that the only necessary sustenance for human life is “prana” (the “life force” of Yoga), of which sunlight is believed to be a major source. Advocates and practitioners of this belief system have been repeatedly exposed as frauds, including “Jasmuheen,” an infamous advocate of Breatharianism whose teachings were implicated in numerous deaths.
Most recently, a Seattle woman named Navenna Shine attempted to prove to the world that Breatharianism does indeed work by livestreaming her attempt to fast for six months. Shine, the founder of “Living on Light,” insists that the only necessary source of health is an internal source she calls “light,” but that it does not “work” for most people due to their failure to truly believe in its power.
Her effort already shows signs of doubtfulness, both for her own health and the truth behind her views: already a month into the experiment, claiming that she feels like her body has already used up its stores of fat, and she suspiciously hasn’t been able to livestream her actions due to “technical difficulties.” To be fair, she admits that she isn’t sure if her experiment will work, but it is clear that she believes it is a possibility.
The absurdity of Breatharianism, of Jasmuheen, and of Navenna Shine is self-evident. What is not so readily apparent is how someone can so stubbornly reject well-established scientific knowledge and common experience. Oftentimes when we encounter ridiculous views like this, it is easy to be glib and mock the person, but a better response would be to seriously consider why that person lost touch with reality. Clearly, Navenna’s experiment is extremely dangerous, and given its complete lack of grounding in fact, is cause for concern, not mockery.
Science writer Kathleen Taylor recently suggested that adherence to “radical ideologies” and other dubious/undesirable views might be viewed as a mental illness. Are Shine’s beliefs, which are neither radical nor ideological, but simply blatantly wrong, evidence of a mental illness, or just eccentricity (or is there a difference)? Should she be treated, if not institutionalized, or left to pursue her strange beliefs in peace? This is a question best left to mental health experts and any friends and family, but one thing is clear: if she stays true to her plan, and no one intervenes, she will die. That said, there is a great deal of danger in labeling strange or undesirable views and behavior — especially those of a subjective nature, like political or moral views — as objectively flawed.
How can we balance respect for individual's ownership of their own lives with concern for their well-being? The best approach would be for Navenna and people like her to be able live their lives as they wish (as long as they do not directly wrong others), but for friends and family to engage them in conversation and offer support. Ultimately, the decision to intervene or not is one best left to personal doctors, friends, and family, not to government or society at large.