Naveena Shine thought our hunger might save us. Not even hunger—in her imagined future, we do not eat and we do not yearn to. Instead, she thought, we’d “live on light.” In her first video, posted on YouTube May 3, 2013, Shine sat in a small trailer in Redmond, nearly 20 miles east of Seattle. Her blue sweater matched her eyes. Ruddy cheeks, hair a silver bob. She looked too grandmotherly for her idea’s grim implications: “Death,” she acknowledged, in her English accent, “is usually the outcome of not eating.” But she’d heard stories that perhaps 40,000 people “presently live on light.”
Since there was no science to support this sustenance-less life, she was using “light” symbolically. She wasn’t even sure it was possible. But consider the benefits: “If humans didn’t have to eat, we could turn our planet back into the place of beauty.” No slaughterhouses. No agricultural toxins seeping into land and sea and flesh. No more starvation. And think of all the free time. Starting May 3, her 65th birthday, she set out to provide “undeniable, in-your-face, honest evidence” that a person could go without food for four to six months, “way beyond what science tells us is possible.” She set up eight cameras in the trailer, planning to livestream her experiment. “The science,” she said, “can come later.”
Shine’s outlandish plan was, in spirit, a few years ahead of the zeitgeist. Today abnegation is in vogue. Google searches for “fasting” and “intermittent fasting” increased sharply in 2016 and peaked in January 2020. A survey found it was the year’s most popular diet. A crush of celebrities—Chris Pratt, Jimmy Kimmel, Gwyneth Paltrow—have touted regimens like the 16:8 (eat in eight-hour increments) or the 5:2 (drastically reduce calories two days a week). Fasting proponents cite a host of benefits: mental clarity, weight loss, disease protection, longevity, self-empowerment, spiritual awakening.
Shine’s approach might have been the most essentialist—no food, full stop—but it was not the first local example and not, ultimately, the most destructive. Seattle’s long seen itself as an iconoclastic pioneer town. It’s little surprise we’ve attracted hunger artists of every stripe: a doctor whose “fasting cure” killed at least a dozen patients, a new age guru, and Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof coffee guy, who released a book this year teaching you how to optimize your intermittent fast. Much as they range in extremity, the stories share themes—purity, innovation, the power of story itself.
If you can look past the absurdity of Shine’s idea, you can see its allure, a draw of all fasting. Today, we’re obsessed with what’s healthy, natural, environmentally friendly, low in toxins—with food that is “clean.” Yet trying to achieve this cleanliness strings us between polarities. We’re told to eat whole grains, but no gluten; to drink red wine, but no alcohol; to eat lentils, but no legumes; to eat vegan, but only grass-fed steak. After we’ve been smacked like ping-pong balls between headlines and test diets and do I actually feel better, abstinence feels like sanity. Because what could possibly be cleaner, more earth-conscious, than nothing?
Naveena Shine never got her livestream online, but through the spring of 2013 she posted regular video updates. Wearing an array of brightly hued shirts, she’d pop up and pontificate about her quest. (I was not able to reach her for this story.) Well beyond an intermittent faster hoping to drop a few pounds, she wanted to take eating to absolute zero—and find its ultimate benefits of health and enlightenment and freedom. She acknowledged this was a “quasi-scientific experiment,” but still fancied herself a paradigm-shifting explorer, like the Wright brothers or “poor old Galileo.”
Locally, she had a predecessor: Wiley Brooks, a new age guru who lived in West Seattle for a minute in the early 1990s. In seminars at the Bellevue Hilton, he’d taught Breatharianism, the belief that if we train our bodies and spirits, we can live only on the nourishment of good breathing and righteous sun rays. Naturally, he charged for such enlightenment. (He’d been caught years before ordering pie at a hotel and worked that into his shtick—a Twinkie balanced toxins.)
After three uncomfortable days, Shine started feeling better. By day 10, she’d lost 15 pounds, down from 159, and was “feeling hale and hearty.” She kept at it. Her skin cleared up; her arthritis felt better, she said. But her weight dropped disconcertingly: three weeks, 21 pounds gone; four weeks, 23 pounds; five weeks, 29 pounds.
Imprisoned IRA leader Bobby Sands famously died on a hunger strike after 66 days back in 1981. If Shine surpassed Sands, she figured she’d have “credibility in the media.” She already had its attention. Mentions cropped up in The Seattle Times, Vice, The Guardian, Harper’s, this magazine. Her website, she said, got 10,000 hits. People reached out in “concern.” Shine wasn’t worried: “This is one of the least dangerous things I’ve done in my life.” She’d hitchhiked alone all over the world. She’d been a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the culty Oregon guru featured in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country. In 1997, she and 22 others set world records for the hottest firewalks. Fear, she figured, held us back. After 42 days, she’d dropped 31 pounds. If she lost 34, she’d eat again. She said she still felt “really bouncy, really healthy.” She danced for exercise.
On the 45th day, she decided to end it. For one, she was out of money, about to lose her phone and internet. She’d also been seeing people’s responses. “If I completed the experiment—I have no idea if I could or not—I think it would be a terrible injustice. I think it would be stupid.” She figured others would follow her and, like people mimicking a tightrope walker and plummeting, “they will stop eating and they will die.” To avoid starvation, she thought, people would need a soaring enlightenment. The next day she’d lost 34 pounds total, down to 125. The day after that, she ended the fast with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne in water, served in a glass goblet spangled with gold stars.
Four weeks later, she gave a final update. She sat outside, near a forest. She was eating food again, but “probably a lot less” than before. Her weight was back up to 132 pounds. Online, she posted blood tests of her levels after the experiment. The fast kicked her liver function out of whack. Still, “I think it was really good for me,” she said of her experiment. By November she posted a Facebook update from Las Vegas: “Two buffets down and many more to go.”
If she’d failed at total abstention, Shine claimed much of what fasters seek: weight
loss, health, vigor, freedom from food. Another Brit, who’d come to the Northwest seeking similar changes, found fasting’s graver side.
Linda Burfield Hazzard had strict features—high cheekbones, a hard jaw, eyes of eerie precision. She wore her hair in a sort of nest atop her head and favored nurse’s whites. In early 1911, she sat behind her large desk in her office at Fourth and Pike and began to describe her “fasting cure” to a pair of new arrivals. First, go down to two vegetarian meals a day. Next, one meal a day. Then the enemas begin.
Claire and Dora Williamson, English sisters, had traveled the continent for such a cure. Claire had nagging uterine pain. Dora’s condition was a little more nebulous, with swollen glands and achy knees. Neither was terribly ill, but they came from a well-off English family and—in a fixation recognizable today—took to wellness as pastime. The sisters had come west, to the offices of this purported pioneer. Hazzard’s Seattle Daily Times ads deemed her a “fasting specialist” and osteopath. The public would know her as the “Starvation Doctor.”
The U.S. was then in the throes of what historian Ruth C. Engs has termed a “clean living movement” (we’ve been in another since the 1970s). People everywhere were trying to get pure. They nixed cigarettes, banned booze, gave up meat, dunked in ice baths, skipped sex, got enemas. Doctors, and non-doctors, calibrated such regimens. In Michigan, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg advocated a life free of meats and masturbation, powered instead by dry breakfast cereals.
The Williamsons had considered Kellogg’s sanitarium, but they were already in British Columbia, and they’d avidly read Hazzard’s slim 1908 book Fasting for the Cure of Disease. Hazzard herself had learned the method from Dr. Edward H. Dewey. Upton Sinclair referenced the two when he published his own book on fasting in 1911 (perhaps a logical reaction to reporting The Jungle). For these writers, fasting was not a mere tool, but “the key to eternal youth, the secret of perfect and permanent health,” as Sinclair wrote.
Hoping to achieve such health, the Williamsons gave Hazzard $60 a month each (about $1,600 per person today). She set them up in a Capitol Hill apartment for cleansing. Hazzard’s process included near daily “internal baths” (enemas) that sometimes lasted three hours, massages that involved Hazzard “pummeling” the patients’ bodies, and fasts ranging from 10 to 75 days, writes Gregg Olsen in his 1997 book on Hazzard, Starvation Heights. All they would consume was some juice and tomato or asparagus broth.
The sisters fainted constantly. Their weight dropped precipitously. But Hazzard required their tongues to be clean of a “thick
yellowish-white coat,” a sign of impurity. They’d not eat until the tongue pinked. After weeks, their bodies withered. None of this worried Hazzard. She’d treated over 1,000 people, she claimed in her book. After the sisters fasted for two months in Seattle, she moved them to her sanitarium in Olalla, a small town on the Kitsap Peninsula. By then, one witness estimated, they weighed about 70 pounds each. Nevertheless, treatment continued. Claire died on May 19.
She was not Hazzard’s first loss. The doctor acknowledged in her 1908 book that 11 patients had died in her care over 12 years. In 1910, about a year before the Williamsons arrived in Seattle, a civil engineer in his mid-20s had wasted away during a three-week fasting cure. “Man Starved to Death by His Doctor,” the front page of The Seattle Daily Times declared. The trouble was that lawyers at the time couldn’t find a way to prosecute Hazzard for such deaths. Later that year a former Washington state legislator died, too.
But Hazzard wasn’t culpable, she argued in her book. She was being unfairly persecuted. “Organic disease,” whatever ailed them before, was the lethal culprit. Perhaps because fasting ties to nothingness, proponents like to see it as an absolute, a purity. Like Shine, Hazzard bought this (or claimed to). Not only had fasting not killed those people, she thought, it simply couldn’t kill: “Death in the fast never results from deprivation of food, but is the inevitable consequence of vitality sapped to the last degree by organic imperfection.”
When the Williamson sisters’ former childhood caretaker visited Olalla, she knew something was amiss—something beyond a natural death. Dora was down to 54 pounds. The family paid to have her removed from the property. They discovered Claire had made Hazzard executor of her estate and the pair forked over thousands of dollars and almost $6,000 in jewels. That was Hazzard’s grift. She targeted wealthy patients, who, once foodless and woozy, she robbed.
Ultimately the British vice consul got behind the case, and in 1912 Hazzard was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in a Walla Walla prison. Inside, she fasted to demonstrate her method’s safety. Even without her medical license, she continued dishing out advice linked to more deaths. In 1938, at age 70, she fell ill and undertook a fast and died.
Of course she did. Nothing cures every disease and ailment; nothing bestows “eternal youth.” But might eating nothing, in moderation, actually do something good?
Dave Asprey found his shaman through Google. She—an alpaca rancher with an LED-equipped sweat lodge in her yard—took him to a cave in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert with a sleeping bag, a knife, a flashlight, and water. It was 2008 and he sought a vision quest, “a deeper sense of peace,” he writes in his book, Fast This Way, which came out this January. When he left the cave after four days, he’d experienced a transformational fast. What had troubled him? “Regular pangs of hunger, along with distracting yearnings for cookies, chips…. I was not feeling in control of my body.”
Asprey is a man fixated on control. The so-called “father of biohacking,” he has lately been in the news for saying he’s trying to tweak his body—via exercise, therapies, supplements, and diet—so he lives to be 180. In 2013, he founded Bulletproof 360, which is headquartered in downtown Seattle. Shortly after, he grew prominent selling its signature coffee, glossed with butter and MCT oil. It flourished as a fad a few years ago. You can now pick up a $15.99 bag of Bulletproof brand beans at a local QFC.
Overall Bulletproof is a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop for the tech set. Both brands fetishize optimization. Both were part of a 2017 investigation of unsubstantiated health claims on Goop’s website by the watchdog organization Truth in Advertising. Asprey sells no infamous vaginal jade egg, but he was recently touting a device called the Phoenix that serenades the penis with acoustic waves to increase blood flow.
When Asprey hit that cave, he was well into his oft-repeated origin story: By his twenties, he was a 300-pound guy in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, with prediabetes, fatigue, and brain fog. Cardio didn’t help. Neither did diets. So he lab-ratted himself and “invented a new one.” The weight dropped off, but he hadn’t, he writes, confronted “true hunger, to the point where I could free myself from food.” Thus the cave.
Throughout Fast This Way Asprey extols fasting’s benefits—mental, physical, spiritual—with a zooming optimism somewhere between self-help and a sunnier Nietzsche: “Fasting makes you harder to kill. More important, it gives you more to live for.” He also extols the benefits of his own brands, hawking his blue-blocker glasses, his “advanced meditation with neurofeedback” company, his Bulletproof diet, and an array of supplements that Bulletproof just happens to sell. He brings up Bulletproof coffee some 42 times, even as he hedges that he’s not trying to get you to buy it. In the book, he’s perfected a paradox: selling you on “going without,” while also selling you a lot of stuff. The right hand taketh your plate, while the left hand giveth $108 in collagen protein.
Unlike previous generations of fasting advocates, though, Asprey has new science to stand on. Lately legitimate fasting research has grown. Animal and (generally small) human studies have found a host of exciting possible benefits—improved glucose regulation and insulin resistance, inflammation suppression, and longevity markers. In two months, it reduced symptoms in multiple sclerosis patients.
The trouble is that Asprey’s not the most trustworthy interlocutor for solid information. The only sustained discussion of eating disorders—a genuine concern when you’re telling people, granularly, how not to eat—arrives via euphemism, “the fasting trap.” And his science skews rosy. He writes, for instance, about an MIT study that showed 24-hour fasts improved stem-cell regeneration. But he ignores that the study was in mice. Bulletproof got an FDA warning letter last year about “misbranded” supplements on its website. “I’m going to do what works,” he writes, “even if there are no studies yet showing why it works.”
His approach is more tempered than Shine’s “the science can come later,” but the thrust is the same. He’s always been a “closet seeker,” he writes, ready to strike out for the territory beyond conventional assumptions. That is, he’s happy to draw on a body of research when it suits him, but his most important research is his own body—a single subject for endless experiments. He’s arrived at some decent advice: vegetables, sleep, exercise—hard to argue. But his book is foremost a story about what’s worked for him.
Here is a different story. In 2014, Dr. Ethan Weiss read some thrilling studies about time-restricted feeding in mice. Simply with a reduced eating window, they lost weight and showed improved metabolic health. Weiss, a cardiologist and an associate professor at University of California, San Francisco, quit breakfast and lost a little weight, too. People have been fasting forever, he says, but “it hasn’t really been studied robustly.” Nevertheless, he figured it was simple and low-risk, so he recommended it to patients. “A lot of people came back to me and said, Wow, this is amazing, this really works,” Weiss says. “And a number of people came back to me and said, It really doesn’t work.”
He remained curious and last year was the senior author on a randomized controlled study that looked at 116 obese and overweight adults—pretty rigorous for a fasting study. After 12 weeks, the fasting group (doing a breakfastless 16:8 fast) lost an average of two pounds; the control group lost a pound and a half. Neither had significant change in metabolic markers like insulin or glucose. And the fasting group lost an unusual amount of lean mass. Weiss was shocked; he started eating breakfast again. He is more skeptical of seeing nutrition studies in “yeast and worms and flies and mice” as stand-ins for human research. But he hasn’t jettisoned fasting as a potential tool: “I just want to study it.” This was a three-month study, looking at a real-world application of no-breakfast fasting, without controls for diet and exercise (the fasting group took about 2,000 fewer steps a day).
Why, given that people have touted fasting for so long, don’t we have more thorough research? Maybe it has to do with money—don’t eat is not an easy thing to sell. Weiss also speculates that it’s because nutrition science has only recently grown more rigorous. So we’ve been left to experiment on ourselves and look for answers. “Of all the take-homes of our study,” he says, “one of the things that has resonated with me the most is the power of anecdote and the power of self-experience.”
I started to entertain my own narratives in 2017, after reading about intermittent fasting. The research, though cursory, looked promising: In mice, cancers shrank, and protections against diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s increased. I liked the implication. Most health fixes involve some new consumerism: Buy this drug, this supplement, this yoga class, this kale smoothie. Here was the opposite.
So in 2018, I quit breakfast. Whatever discomfort I felt, I attached to the narrative of the mice. Cancer is everywhere in my family, both sides, all sorts. With any stomach rumble, or chilliness, I imagined my nascent, precancerous cells dying out, a microscopic sloughing away of anything broken or dirty. All this folk wisdom had been out there for a reason, right? We were just now backing it with science.
Three years later, my energy across the morning seems more constant, and my mood no longer plummets if I miss a meal. Any other noticeable effects are minor. I’ve stuck with it—if nothing else, it saves time—and remain curious about where studies will go. For the time being, we’re still left with budding research, and with our stories.
Nowhere did the profusion of fasting narratives appear clearer than on the Fast This Way Challenge group on Facebook. With the release of his book, Asprey led some 10,000 members through 14 days of fasting. Scrolling through its discussion section, I was struck not by a gathering of devotees, but by the multiplicity of experience, and the uncertainty. People worried that eating cinnamon, or smoking a joint, might break a fast. Someone said he lost six inches from his waist fasting. People wrote: “OMG...Im finding myself snacking on butter with salt, is that bad???” and “I just completed my first 24hrs fasting and I feel great!!!” Others wrote about getting a heart arrhythmia on a 48-hour fast, about losing four pounds of muscle, about waking up with sleep paralysis during a 36-hour fast.
I kept scrolling, post after post, anecdote after anecdote. I thought about messaging one or two of them, asking what had brought them here, what they hoped for, how—exactly—they’d changed. I thought maybe, fleetingly, I could solve something. But after a while, I logged out. I didn’t need another story.