Germans turn to fasting to cure them of illnesses, disease

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By Eloi Rouyer, AFP

UEBERLINGEN, Germany — What to give the patient who has everything? Well-off Germans in Europe’s top economy are increasingly deciding less is more and fasting to cure what ails them. High-end clinics specializing in deprivation rather than pampering are all the rage in Germany, one of the homes of the fasting movement, and in some cases it is even covered by health insurance plans.

Michael van Almsick, 57, is a fasting devotee and, once a year for the last two decades, has spent a month at the Buchinger-Wilhelmi clinic on the shore of scenic Lake Constance on the Swiss border. Van Almsick starts each day with a spartan breakfast comprised solely of herbal tea, has a fruit juice for lunch, takes a two-hour walk in the afternoon and tucks into a thin broth and a bit of honey at dinnertime. He washes it all down with at least two liters of water daily.

“Try it for a week, just a week. After that you’ll see,” he says with a smile.

Van Almsick runs a large public relations firm in Munich that will be promoting concert dates in Germany for the Rolling Stones on their summer tour. He has come to Buchinger-Wilhelmi to tackle a chronic obesity problem and the litany of ailments that accompany it. So out goes the medication for hypertension, in exchange for a regimented crash diet. That means no more than 200 to 250 calories per day, about one-tenth the recommended daily intake for a middle-aged adult. A 10-day stay at the clinic costs around 2,500 euros (US$3,450) in a standard room but can run much more with extras.

Otto Buchinger (1878-1966), for whom the facility is named, experimented with fasting to treat rheumatoid arthritis, an affliction that forced him to quit his post as a navy physician in 1917 during World War I. A century later, his fasting method is the most widely used in Germany. For its proponents, fasting helps prevent heart disease and treat asthma, arthritis, chronic digestive diseases, some chronic respiratory infections and even depression. Medical experts warn that like any extreme change in habits, fasting should be practiced in moderation under a doctor’s supervision and expectations for dramatic long-term health benefits should be kept in check. Few randomized controlled trials with large sample sizes have been completed on the subject. However one published by the Lancet in 1991 established a beneficial effect of fasting on rheumatoid arthritis.