Article Index ||| NCAHF Home Page

Prolonged Fasting

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Fasting involves voluntary total food deprivation (water only or distilled water only), juice-fasting which permits fruit juices or distilled water and lemon juice. Fasting has a long history as a symbolic demonstration of religious devotion, act of protest, or commitment to a political cause. Various so-called "natural health" or "hygienic" practitioners advocate fasting to "cleanse the body" or as a cure-all. Herbert Shelton, advocate of "natural hygiene"[1] and originator of the erroneous idea of "food combining" popularized by the best-selling pseudonutrition book Fit For Life, was an influential advocate of fasting. Other Shelton disciples include:

Contrary to the teachings of proponents, fasting doesn't "cleanse" or "rest" the liver. If anything, fasting overworks the liver by saturating it with toxins produced by fasting itself [2]. Fasting can be dangerous, especially when undertaken or supervised by ideologists who are blind to its actual effects. Shelton's fasting regime was responsible for several deaths. A 49-yr-old man died of bronchial pneumonia that resulted from a 30-day distilled water diet sponsored by "Dr. Shelton's Health School" in Texas (said to be sixth such death in five years while undergoing treatment at the school) [3] Proponents of fasting often evoke the dangerous "healing crisis" theory of naturopathy alleging that adverse symptoms experienced by the faster are "poisons being expelled by the body." The misguided theory that adverse symptoms should be expected and welcomed as the body's "re-tracing" is explained by Stanley Bass, ND, DC, PhC (Philosopher of Chiropractic):

The toxins being discarded are saving you from more serious disease which will result if you keep them in your body too much longer--possibly hepatitis, kidney disorders, blood disease, heart disease, arthritis, nerve degenerations or even cancer--depending upon your hereditary or structural weaknesses. Be happy you're paying your bills now in an easy payment plan. With some, colds which haven't appeared for a long time may occur, or even fevers. THIS IS NATURE'S WAY OF HOUSECLEANING. DON'T—but DON'T try to stop these symptoms ...These symptoms are part of a curing process, and don't try to cure a cure.

Those who have lived worse lives and poisoned themselves more will experience more severe symptoms. Headaches may occur at the beginning; fever and/or colds may appear; the skin may break out; there may be a short interval of bowel sluggishness, occasional diarrhea, feelings of tiredness and weakness, disinclination to exercise, nervousness, irritability, negativity or mental depression, frequent urination, etc. REALIZE DEEPLY that your body is becoming younger and healthier every day because you are throwing off more and more wastes which would eventually have brought pain, disease and suffering. Those who have the worst symptoms . . . and follow through to their successful termination are thus avoiding some of the worst diseases which would eventually have developed had they continued their careless eating habits.

The notion that adverse symptoms should be disregarded, or even rejoiced about, caused Bivian Lee to ignore serious symptoms of cardiac myopathy that developed during a very-low-calorie Herbalife diet program. When Lee blacked out, his wife discovered his condition and made an appointment for him to see a physician. Sadly, Lee died in front of his 4-year-old daughter before the appointment could be kept [4].

Physical Effects of Fasting

Except for the brain, which consumes more calories than any other organ and has a constant need for glucose whether one is asleep or awake, one's metabolic rate varies with physical activity and by day and nightime effects. The body's ongoing need for nutrition is met by stores in the cells and liver, circulating blood, and gastrointestinal contents. Fasting causes blood sugar to drop. This leads to a breakdown (catabolism) of muscle and other protein tissue for energy. During fasting, catabolism is a kind of "self-cannibalism" the by-products of which (ammonia and urea) lead to acidosis that produces weakness, fatigue, irritability, depression, depressed libido, and a sick feeling. Fasting does not cleanse the system, but loads it with metabolic toxins while decreasing its ability to destroy and excrete these. Fasting leads to rapid loss of water, sodium, and potassium. This decreases blood volume which produces postural hypotension (low blood pressure when standing up), and fainting. Severe potassium depletion can cause a fatal heart rhythm disturbance. The body cannot differentiate between voluntary fasting and starvation and deaths have occurred even with medically supervised fasts and near-fasts. People who survive prolonged fasts (starvation) may suffer anemia, decreased immunity, osteoporosis, kidney damage, or liver damage. Depressed gastrointestinal or digestive functions may persist for weeks or months [v]. The worst thing about fasting is its destruction of lean and vital tissue needed for a healthy and active life. Fasting, like colonic irrigation, laxatives, sweat baths, and other naturopathic regimes are at best useless, and at worst, can be fatal. Fasting is particularly dangerous for children.

Case. A 3.5 yr-old girl died of malnutrition and pneumonia following a 27-day water fast [6]. Her parents were disciples of a naturopath, Kenneth Jaffrey, who believed that fasting was beneficial. The couple placed the little girl on a diet of distilled water for 27 days to clean her body of toxins that they believed had built up through expose to orthodox medicine. The girl's father was described as "intolerant of medical practitioners" and "arrogant in view of life." At death, the child was half of her expected weight [7].

Case. A 9-year-old girl died in Ottawa, Canada after being on a water-only diet for 40-days. Mellissa Larochelle was treated at home in the northern Ontario town of Hearst with the diet which, according to provincial police "apparently has some religious overtones to it. It's somehow connected to the 40 days and nights Jesus fasted and its supposed to purge your system," they said. Mellissa was seized by the Children's Aid Society and hospitalized in Ottawa but died on March 16, 1990. The girl's grandmother, Rollande Turgeon, 55, was sentenced to 6 months in jail on January 18, 1991 after pleading guilty to negligence causing bodily harm. Turgeon had taken courses and was accredited by the American Hygiene Association. She operated a so-called fasting clinic at her house. Turgeon was treating Mellissa for an ear infection. In passing sentence the judge said that Turgeon had made a grave error in judgment by not contacting doctors sooner. He stated that "she was blinded by the principles of fasting and didn't believe in medical intervention." [8]

Psychology of Fasting

The psychology of fasting is consistent with asceticism (self-denial). Ascetics find pleasure in pain. This reversal of perception is rooted in a negative self-concept. Ascetics feel badly when good things happen to them because they do not feel worthy. They feel good when they are deprived of what gives normal people pleasure because they are getting what they feel they deserve. Puritans were ascetics. They are remembered for the concept that "if it feels good, don't touch it," "if it tastes good, don't eat it," and "if it looks good, cover your eyes!" Ascetics love to give up things. When they are sick they often think, "If I give up something more, I will be better." Fasting and austere diets that amount to near-fasting have appeal to ascetics for whom sacrifice has become the route to health and eternal salvation. Little wonder that many religious zealots demonstrate their extreme devotion by fasting. The importance of psychological factors in the desire to fast can be seen in case reports.

Case. A 36-yr-old male adherent to the Temple Beautiful diet died of malnutrition attempting to become a holy man who could live on air alone. Five years earlier, David Blume had been pursuing an idyllic career as an English teacher at Nathaniel Hawthorne college in New England. His students loved him. He was a tall, handsome man with clear, bright eyes and a gift for sharing ideas. Blume lost his teaching job because of budget cuts, and was unable to secure satisfactory employment. During his period of vulnerability, he meet Steven Haasz, founder and leader of Temple Beautiful. Haasz was a disciple of Ann Wigmore, originator of the wheatgrass fad. Blume chose the most rigorous of the group's dietary options and began subsisting almost entirely on raw wheatgrass juice. His aim was to become a "breatharian"—a holy man who could live on air alone. On October 6, 1979, Blume's lifeless body was found on the floor of his shabby Philadelphia apartment. He was 6 feet tall and weighed 87 lbs [9].

Case. Several "patients" of Arthur Andrews, operator of the California Health Sanctuary at Hollister, CA, died following prolonged fasting. The California medical licensing board brought charges against Andrews for practicing medicine without a license because the purpose of the fasting had been to heal medical conditions. The defense argued that Andrews' regime was intended to "heal the soul," which was a religious matter. Andrews was fined $1,000 for the unlawful practice of medicine, but was allowed to continue operating as a religious retreat as long as he did not practice medicine [10].

NCAHF strongly advises against the use of prolonged fasting for health purposes, and believes that requiring children to fast is a form of child abuse.


  1. Kenney J. "Fit For Life: Some notes on the book and its roots," Nutr Forum 1986;3:57-9.
  2. Butler K. A Consumer's Guide to "Alternative Medicine." Prometheus, 1992, p.60.
  3. Los Angeles Daily Journal, 9/21/82, p.1.
  4. Civil District Court Parrish of Orleans, State of Louisiana, Cynthia Lee, et al v HerbaLife International, Inc., CDC #85-16512.
  5. Butler, Op Cit. p.181.
  6. Finke M, Horne C. "Parents to trial over fast death," The Herald, (Melbourne, Australia) 12/5/85.
  7. "Water diet couple found guilty of manslaughter," Age (Melbourne, Australia), March 26, 1986.
  8. "Grandmother gets 6 months for girl's fast death," Chronicle Journal (Thunder Bay, Ontario) 1/19/91; Also The Toronto Star, 1/20/91, p.A14.
  9. "Temple Beautiful diet--death for David Blume," San Bernardino Sun, 10/15/79. p.A-3.
  10. Sampson W. "The sanctuary desanctified; inside the courtroom." The Health and Nutrition Newsletter, Fall, 1987, pp.4-5.

Other Resource Documents

  • Fasting takes off weight but it can be dangerous (Mayer) Sun-Telegram 1/11/76
  • The physiology of starvation (Young) Scientific American 1971;225 (4):14-21
    [Review of how prolonged starvation affects the body. Exceptional as a source of scientific information on the topic].
  • A Guide to Political Fasting (Brooks) Nonviolent Tactics Development Project, July, 1981 [Although the aim of this publication is to prepared people for the psychosocial effects of protest-fasting, the authors present a great deal of practical information on beginning, maintaining and ending fasts. Included is a useful bibliography on fasting.]
  • Hunger strikers may have died of fat, not protein, loss. (Korcok) JAMA 1981;246:1878-9
  • Unwarranted dieting retards growth and delays puberty Nutrition Reviews 1984;42:14-15 [Reports on 14 children who voluntarily restricted food intake due to fear of obesity.]
  • Brief fasting, stress and cognition in children (Pollitt) Am J Clin Nutr 1981;34:1526-33
  • Fit For Life: some notes on the book and its roots (Kenney) Nutr Forum 1986;3:57-9
  • Sudden death associated with very low calorie weight reduction regimens (Sours) Am J Clin Nutr 1981;34:453-61,
  • A critique of Mr. Clinton's self-help guru NCAHF Newsletter Jan-Feb, 1995

Recommended Books

  • Butler K. A Consumer's Guide to "Alternative Medicine" Prometheus, 1992.
  • Raso J. Mystical Diets. Prometheus, 1993

Copyright Notice

© 1995, National Council Against Health Fraud.
With proper citation, this article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes

Article Index ||| NCAHF Home Page

This article was posted on February 1, 2002.