Michael Werner looks normal enough. He’s six foot tall, grey and bespectacled, weighs in at 12-and-a-half stone and enjoys playing tennis, socialising and jogging – three brisk miles before breakfast with his wife Angelica, a nice fry-up for her and a quick coffee for him.
All very ordinary. It’s just that Michael doesn’t eat. At all.
In fact, the last item of food that passed his lips was a huge helping of potato salad and a slice of cake on New Year’s Eve 2001.
Extraordinarily, the 58-year-old doctor of chemistry and father of three from Brunswick, northern Germany, claims he gets all the sustenance he needs from the sun. Oh, and the occasional coffee, fruit juice or a glass of wine if he and Angelica are enjoying a night out.
“I call it light nutrition,” he explains. “But one can also talk of ethereal, Prana, Chi or cosmic energy … it’s all the same thing.”
It’s also known as Breatharianism, or the belief that the elements contained in air – nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen and hydrogen – can sustain a body.
So far, so daft. But Dr Werner isn’t your average nutter. He’s a bright, well spoken scientist who was so surprised at the consequences of his bizarre diet – just four coffees and two fruit juices every day for six-and-a-half years, plus that occasional glass of wine – that he’s written a book about it called Life From Light [UK] .
“I’m actually a really normal person,” he insists. “Not a freak, or someone with some amazing phenomenon – just a Joe Normal.”
It all started in 2000 when the Werners had a friend over for supper. “It was a stroke of providence,” he says.
“One evening an old acquaintance of my wife came round for dinner. We noticed she’d become very thin, even a bit haggard, and ate nothing.
“But when we asked what was up – whether she had a problem – she told us that she’d wasn’t eating any more. She claimed she didn’t need to because she’d gone through a very special conversion programme and was now living from light nourishment alone.”
While some people might have suggested she saw a psychiatrist, post haste, Michael – who was overweight (15 stone), unhappy and unhealthy with a passion for pizza and all things spiritual – was intrigued.
And, finally, after nine months of build-up and the New Year’s Eve potato salad blow-out, he gave it a whirl – starting with a strict acclimatisation programme to help his body adapt.
“It takes three weeks,” he says. “The first week is really strict – eat nothing, drink nothing.
“Every doctor will tell you this is not possible, but it is. It sounds hard, but living without water for seven days is very possible – it’s all about being in the right frame of mind.
“The crucial factor in this 21-day process is self-belief. If you believe you can do this then you won’t give in to the hunger.
“On the eighth day you can have some watered down fruit juice – to cleanse your body with the antioxidants.
“In the third week, you can move on to stronger, more concentrated juices. And in the last seven days, your body stabilises and gets used to its new regime.”
But what about the grindingly awful hunger?
“You won’t feel the burning hunger if your mental attitude is right,” he says crisply. “This isn’t about dieting, but respecting your body.”
But he does admit to losing more than two stone and looking “like a dried out tortoise” at the end of the three-week period.
Of course, fasting isn’t new. It dates back to Biblical times, was rigorously practised in Judaism and recommended by Jesus both by example and teaching – to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening the attractions of sensible pleasures. But for a matter of days and weeks – not years. To be frank, it’s a miracle Dr Werner hasn’t died.
Experts differ as to the absolute maximum time that human life can continue without water, but the broad consensus rests at somewhere between seven and ten days, though severe dehydration and confusion (due to the build-up of sodium and potassium in the brain) would set in sooner. In the desert, of course, lack of water can kill in a matter of hours.
So if Dr Werner is telling the truth, then his body really is extraordinary. And at six foot and 12-and-a-half stone, he’s not even particularly skinny. And he claims to feel wonderful.
“I feel healthier and more vital than ever. My powers of resistance and regeneration are stronger. I’m hardly ever ill any more. Psychologically, I feel stable and mentally enriched, have much better concentration and memory than I used to and now only need five or six hours’ sleep, rather than the eight or nine I used to.”
And what of his libido – has it been diminished by a diet of coffee, juice and air?
“The opposite!” he trills. “Every perception – whether it is sight, skin or other sense organ – is more intense. My potency has become even stronger.”
But isn’t what he’s doing a form of anorexia?
“Oh no! I don’t eat out of a love for my body – not because I hate it. Anorexics generally have a negative rejection of their own body and food. I feel very good in my body, even feel more closely bound to my body than before.
“I’ve always had a very positive relationship with food. I enjoy being present at mealtimes and often think I even enjoy them better than if I were to eat!’
So what does he do at mealtimes?
“I take part in them, of course. I always drink something – sometimes water, sometimes tea, sometimes coffee, depending on the situation and my mood.”
There are an estimated 5,000 Breatharianists/light nutritionists worldwide, of whom Werner
claims to know about 30. The movement has a chequered past.
In 1983 Wiley Brooks, the founder of the Breatharian Institute of America and who claimed not to have eaten for 19 years, caused outrage when he was allegedly caught ordering a chicken pie. And several female followers have died after fasting and falling into comas.
Australian Ellen “Jasmuheen” Greves was a leading proponent of the movement in the late Nineties – lecturing all over the world on the benefits of a diet of light, air and one packet of biscuits in 10 years.
However, scepticism crept in after reporters visiting her Brisbane home found it crammed with food – which she insisted belonged to her second husband, Jess Ferguson, a convicted fraudster.
And a British journalist accompanying her to her check-in desk at Heathrow was astonished when the BA clerk asked her to confirm that she’d ordered an in-flight vegetarian meal. “No, no,” she replied. “Well, yes, OK, I did. But I won’t be eating it.”
And an attempt in 1999 to test her skill ended in near disaster. The controlled experiment, under tight security, ended after four days amid fears for her rapidly deteriorating health. She blamed the failure on the stressful circumstances under which the experiment was conducted, rather than lack of food and water.
But where Jasmuheen failed, Dr Werner claims to have proved his capabilities.
“I have taken part in two ten-day studies where everything was monitored – my blood pressure, urine, heart rate. Much of my energy comes from light and the atmosphere. I absorb energy from light – like plants – and this allows me to function fully.
“It serves as proof that I am doing what I say I am, but we still can’t pinpoint how exactly. There are many questions that can’t be answered yet.”
Including a rather obvious one. How can he lead a healthy life on a diet of nothing when thousands of people starve to death every day? After all, there’s plenty of light in Africa – couldn’t all the hungry people there adopt his principals?
“Fundamentally, I am convinced it would be possible,” he says. “The problem is they are convinced they will starve if they don’t eat,” he adds. “But I do not in any way believe that light nourishment is a method of solving the world hunger problem.”
Certainly, other medical experiments have found no evidence that there is any way for starving individuals to be kept alive.
During the closing years of World War II, 36 men took part in an experiment at the University of Minnesota in which they were subjected to semi-starvation and lost a quarter of their body weight. They suffered a variety of symptoms including anaemia, fatigue, apathy, extreme weakness, irritability and mental problems.
Medical experts are unanimous in their disapproval and scepticism. Even if you survived the initial fasting period, existing on a diet of light, air and coffee for an extended period is likely to be fatal. Even Dr Werner says he would not recommend it to others.
But he says he suffers no ill-effects even six-and-a-half years into his experiment. Is there any food he misses? “Occasionally, I’ll bite into some chocolate or a slice of pizza – just to annoy my three children. But the enjoyment of eating stops as it hits the back of my throat.
“But I still love being with food, to see and smell it, particularly fried, in a cafe – that is something very fine. Now and again I get an appetite – when I might eat a couple of grapes or a nut. But these days I can take it or leave it.”
Not surprisingly, he comes under constant pressure to eat.
“Dealing with the practicalities of light nourishment is not simple. I am often asked when are you going to eat again? I can only answer, I don’t know.
2I can only say I would be stupid to eat again, as I am doing really well. Better than ever before.”
Well, perhaps. But we have only his word for it and if ever there was an experiment which should not be tried at home, this is it.
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