Can People Live on Only Sunlight and Water?

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A woman in Seattle who believes she can live without food is trying to prove it, and promoting her claims through social media.

According to a story on Fox News, “Navenna Shine, the founder and subject of the Living on Light experiment, plans to spend the next four to six months abstaining from food of any kind and living on only light, water and tea. According to her website Livingonlight.com, Shine started the experiment in an attempt to follow a group of obscure Yogis, who for thousands of years have claimed the ability to live on light.”

The claimed ability to survive without food (and sometimes without water as well) is called inedia, and those who attempt it are called “inediates” (among other things). One common version of inedia includes a belief called breatharianism, which teaches that humans can be trained to survive just on water and sunlight.

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Shine is only the latest among many alleged inediates over the years. Though the beliefs date back thousands of years, in modern times only a handful of people actually claim this amazing ability. In 2010 an 82-year-old Indian man named Prahlad Jani made news for claiming he had not had anything to eat or drink since World War II.

Psychology of Inedia

Inedia is very different from merely dieting for health, fasting as non-violent protest, or because of a psychological disorder such as anorexia nervosa. Robert Carroll, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Sacramento City College and author of “The Skeptics Dictionary” notes that refusing to eat has strong spiritual connotations: “Fasting has long been considered a way to purify one’s body and mind. Fasting reminds us of our dependence and weakness, and links us to those who suffer hunger as part of their daily lives. Inediates strive to be spiritual beings and carry fasting to an inhuman level. If restraint, self-control, and reducing one’s intake of food and water are good, then eliminating all physical nourishment must be better.”

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Temporary fasting is part of many religions, including Islam and Christianity; in Roman Catholic traditions, some saints are said to have lived for months or even years without food.

It’s not surprising that such claims fail when subjected to scientific tests. The human body needs both food and water to function; it’s as simple as that. Plants can create their own food through photosynthesis, but people can’t. Depending on many factors (including the health and size of an individual) the human body can live for about a month without eating, though only a few days without water. Stories of rescued accident victims who have survived for a few weeks on little or no food are not unheard of.

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If Navenna Shine wishes to follow in the path of previous breatharians and inediates, she should be aware that many of their claims are exaggerated at best and fraudulent at worst. Several people who claimed to survive on nothing more than air and sunlight have been caught sneaking food and water. Unless a person allows himself or herself to be closely watched at all times, fraud is a real possibility. One prominent breatharian, Wiley Brooks, was seen and photographed in a fast food restaurant during his supposed fasting.

Shine has turned her experimental flirtation with starvation into something of a social media event, filming herself on web cams and creating a Facebook page so supporters (and detractors) can follow along. She seems sincere in her effort, blogging about her symptoms including nausea, her conversations with God, and the messages she receives from the universe as her body fights off delirium. If she’s not careful she may make news for a whole different, tragic reason.

Image: iStock