Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

Bizzare ‘diet cult’ that lives without food and water caught its leader eating McDonald’s

Disclaimer: Mentions of eating disorder, anxiety and body dysmorphia.

In 2013, Michelle Pfeiffer—the OG catwoman who starred in Batman Returns alongside Michael Keaton—admitted to being part of a movement that believed humans can exist without food or water. Joining the group when she reached Hollywood at the age of 20, Pfeiffer was convinced that the diet regime would keep her slim while simultaneously expanding her spiritual horizons.

At first, she was persuaded to become a vegetarian via fruitarianism—a diet that consists primarily of fruits. Slowly, the actress was conditioned to replace food and water with the sun and passive inhalation of “cosmic micro-dust” from the air. Yes, you read that right. Visiting the group three times a week, Pfeiffer realised that the members gradually emptied her bank account with their constant demands for fees. At the time, the actress was helping her future husband, actor Peter Horton, with a film about the Moonies (members of the religious movement widely known as the Unification Church).

“I was helping him to do research on this cult and I realised I was in one!” Pfeiffer said, as noted by the Daily Mail. Horton then helped the actress cut ties with the group, who claimed that she wouldn’t be able to survive without them. Enter Breatharianism, an American movement founded by Wiley Brooks in the early 80s, preaching a sun and dust diet that has now become a core trend in pro-anorexia communities.

Claiming to have fasted for 19 years, Brooks was first introduced to the public in 1980 by deadlifting 1,100 pounds on a variety show called That’s Incredible!. Shortly after, the Daily Mail reported that he’d been a New York-based sound engineer for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Though the claims were unverified, Brooks appeared on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show a year later to preach that absolutely anyone can live with the nutrients obtained from air and sunlight.

“Breatharianism is a philosophy that believes that the human body, when it’s in perfect harmony with itself and nature, is a perfect Breatharian—you know, all the constituents that we need [are] taken from the air we breathe,” Brooks told Snyder. “There is only one thing that keeps the human body alive, and that is breathing. The food that we take is the same as any other thing we take into the body as it becomes a habit. In other words, eating is an acquired habit, just like alcohol or smoking cigarettes.”

Brooks then went on to make questionable claims like how Breatharian mothers don’t need to feed their babies, who are born with the ability to survive on air and sun. He also believed that those who pass away during hunger strikes are “killed by their death wish, not from starvation.”

Just to be clear, if you try to live off air and light, common sense is that this supposed ‘diet’ would end tragically. Common sense and actual statistics, that is. Despite the detractors, however, Brooks gathered a huge number of followers and he eventually set up the Breatharian Institute in Larkspur, California back in 1982. At the time, Brooks advised against fasting and followers were first urged to “clean their blood” with 24 food items featuring a “yellow vibration quality.” This included grapefruit, eggs, chicken, fish and… rum-and-raisin Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Over time, Brooks’ beliefs and rules about diet culture kept changing. In 1983, the leader was seen leaving a 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, a hot dog and Twinkies. Trays of room service food, including chicken pot pie and biscuits, were found outside his hotel room in Vancouver. Co-founder of the Breatharians, Lavelle Lefler, then charged her partner with “sneaking junk food into his room after everyone is asleep.”

“I have taught yoga for 15 years and I have been to India, where people survive without eating, so I know the Breatharian concept is true,” Lefler told media outlets in 1983. “When I first met Wiley I believed in him so much I gave him my own phone and office to serve as headquarters for the institute.”

About a month and a half later, however, Lefler saw Brooks eat an omelette. “I was so shocked, I didn’t react. He thought he was safe and started eating around me all the time,” she said. “The truth is, he sneaks into 7-Elevens and fast food places and eats just like the rest of us—except worse because he has to rely on places that are open late into the night.”

When Brooks began losing followers, he responded with an accusation of his own against Lefler. “We were romantically involved. We broke up. Now, she’s out for revenge. What she says is a bunch of garbage,” he claimed. “I go into 7-Elevens all the time, but only to buy magazines. I go to restaurants and to health food stores because my friends eat. No one can prove I’ve taken any food.”

Then came the McDonald’s fiasco. Brooks believed that humans aren’t supposed to live in a third-dimensional (3D) reality. Instead, we’re all fifth-dimensional (5D) beings who are trapped on Earth—currently being sucked into this 3D world, which is why we feel the urge to eat 3D food. So when the leader was caught eating—apologies, “easting”—McDonald’s, he incorporated the American fast-food giant into his philosophy.

According to him, all McDonald’s locations are apparently built on properties protected by 5D energies and spiritual portals. This is why “Breatharians feel happier and at peace in McDonald’s.” Say what now? He then went on to recommend his followers to drink as much Diet Coke and eat as many Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese as possible before they meditate—claiming that Diet Coke is “liquid light” and cows are “magical fifth-dimensional converters who turn third-dimensional food into fifth-dimensional food.”

With a heavy focus on spirituality, Brooks basically evolved into urging his followers to either starve or eat fast food, up until his death in 2016. Abandoning his classes, the leader then devoted 100 per cent of his time to “solve the problem as to why he needed to eat some type of food to keep his physical body alive and allow his light body to manifest completely.” Nevertheless, Brooks catapulted from being a diet peddler to a guru—all in the language of what we now call “wellness.”

4 reasons why the CICO diet is toxic both for your body and mind

We have been constantly plagued with different diets to achieve weight loss: intermittent fasting, keto, juice cleanses, paleo, Weight Watchers and of course, the most common, CICO. While there are many benefits and evidence for such a diet, there are also some serious catches. But first, let’s breakdown how this specific dietary plan work

What is the CICO diet?

The CICO diet is an abbreviation for the term ‘calories in, calories out’ and is a regime that consists of consuming fewer calories than those you burn. It is perhaps one of the most common and popular gateways into the world of weight loss. The idea behind this dietary method is that as long as you’re consuming enough for your body’s essential needs, you can eat whatever you want and lose weight since you’re in a constant calorie deficit. And, for most, it seems to work.

Just one scroll through the CICO diet subreddit will boast hundreds of successful weight loss results, with individuals often using a calorie-tracking app to calculate their necessary caloric consumption. But while it may help you lose weight, that does not mean it’s a perfect method for healthy eating and living. It only works as an approach when people use the method the right way. Every dietary approach comes with a catch, here are four.

1 Nutrients are more important than calories

According to this method, if you maintain your specific caloric deficit, you can eat anything. So, technically, you could eat chocolate all day as long as you don’t go over your total calories for the day. This concept has caused many to believe that all calories are created equal and that is simply not true. This can lead people to choose eating a packet of crisps over an avocado, because it may contain less calories, even though the nutrients and benefits of the avocado obviously far outweigh the irresistible crisps. Even if this way of eating successfully leads to weight loss, your body could suffer nutritionally.

Sports nutritionist and dietitian Robbie Clark explained to The Huffington Post that the way we metabolise and breakdown the energy from calories is not one-size-fits-all—many factors are at play and different calories (those from unhealthy foods and those from nutrient-dense foods) have different effects on the body.

“Healthy, nutrient-dense foods will keep hunger at bay, help maintain stable blood glucose levels, reduce cravings, and allow your brain to signal to your stomach that it’s full,” Clark said. Whereas, ironically, reaching for those unhealthy foods that may be lower in calories could not only cause obvious nutritional deficiencies, but also lead to weight gain. This is because that unhealthy food choice may not keep you satiated for long.

“Nutrient-poor foods will [thus] have the opposite effect, causing hormonal dysfunction, spiking insulin levels, increasing cravings, suppressing satiety signals and encouraging overeating,” he continued. Things that can’t simply be replaced through supplements. Weight loss in this case doesn’t equate to health. So, if you’re gonna try this method (even though it does work in many ways), be sure to eat as nutritionally as possible within your means.

2 Calorie counting isn’t always accurate

In order to partake in this regime, calorie counting is an essential element of it, and now, with a stream of fitness-tracking and calorie counting apps, it seems dead easy, right? Not quite. There are a number of factors that can throw off the accuracy of your daily count. Take the example of when you’re eating at a restaurant—can you be certain of the calories in that meal? Have you factored in the effect exercising could also have on your calorie count?

Sometimes when working out over a certain threshold, your body can begin to limit the amount of calories used so that you don’t starve—it’s trying to help you. This is extremely difficult to accurately determine yourself but, perhaps the most common reason for inaccuracy can be the tendency to underestimate calorie consumption. One study found that often people forget what they ate or used in preparing a meal and also don’t account for high-caloric drinks, hidden calories or mindless snacking during the day that may be ingested—this can lead to underestimation of consumption and overestimation of exercise.

Something also to consider is the lack of available food options when filling out your diary on a calorie-tracking app. Often, foods and cuisines from different ethnicities and cultures are not accurately represented—your cultural food is not unhealthy just because an app says so. You do not have to limit yourself to plain chicken breast and broccoli.

3 CICO is not sustainable long-term

Speaking to The Express, Doctor Rupy Aujla expressed his concern on diets such as CICO, “The cons surrounding diets usually boil down to sustainability. When you employ a strategy which reduces calories, a very common dietary method, your weight set-point changes.” This means that when your caloric intake rapidly declines, you may go into what’s known as ‘starvation mode’ whereby your body holds on to as many calories as it can and thus, retains as much fat as it can.

“This is why people tend to plateau, despite having a consistent calorie deficit for a long period of time,” Aujla explained. “This also leads to people falling off the wagon because they are less motivated, usually by the three-month mark, so they will regain the weight they rapidly lost.” Not only are there physical reasons for this being unsustainable but mental ones too.

There is huge enjoyment to be had with food and it is definitely a big influence on your mental health. Living in such a restrictive way could severely impact your mental wellbeing. President of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR), Felice Jacka, stated that “a healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety,” and explained that there is huge scientific evidence that shows food is just as important mentally as it is physically.

4 Calorie counting can affect disordered eating

Counting your calories has long been associated with disordered eating and unhealthy behaviours surrounding food. Beat—a charity dedicated to aiding those with eating disorders—told the BBC as part of its investigation into this association that counting calories, especially aided by calorie-tracking apps, only exacerbate eating disorders and make recovery even more difficult. It also found many harmful entries by MyFitnessPal, Lose It! and Lifesum users that showcased dangerous evidence of binge eating, starvation and severe esteem and mental health decline.