For his breakfast on July 11, 1966, 27-year-old Scotsman Angus Barbieri ate a boiled egg, a slice of bread with butter, and a cup of black coffee. It was the first food he’d eaten in 382 days.
According to a report published in the Chicago Tribune, the next day he told a reporter, “I thoroly [sic] enjoyed my egg and I feel very full.”
Barbieri had walked into the University Department of Medicine at the Royal Infirmary of Dundee, Scotland, more than a year before, seeking treatment for his excessive weight. At the time he weighed 456 pounds, “grossly obese,” according to a case report published by his doctors in the Postgraduate Medical Journal in 1973.
They planned to put him on a short fast, to try to drop some weight off his 6-foot frame, but really, doctors expected that he’d probably lose some fat and regain it, as usually happens.
But as days without food turned into weeks, Barbieri felt eager to continue the program. Absurd and risky as his goal sounded — fasts over 40 days were considered dangerous — he wanted to reach his “ideal weight,” 180 pounds. So he kept going. In what was a surprise to his doctors, he lived his daily life mostly from home during the fast, coming into the hospital for frequent checkups and overnight stays. Regular blood-sugar tests assured doctors that he really wasn’t eating and demonstrated that he was somehow able to function while very hypoglycemic. Weeks turned into months.
“This is one of the most remarkable cases of voluntary weight reduction I have ever heard of,” one of his doctors told a reporter.
Barbieri took vitamins on various occasions throughout the fast, including potassium and sodium supplements. He was allowed to drink coffee, tea, and sparkling water, all of which are naturally calorie-free. He said there was the occasional time that he’d have a touch of sugar or milk in tea, especially in his final few weeks of fasting.
At the end of his ordeal, Barbieri tipped the scales at 180.
“I have forgotten what food tastes like,” he said before his long-awaited breakfast. Five years after that, he had kept the vast majority of the 276 pounds he’d lost off, weighing in at 196.
Transformation through deprivation is an ancient concept. Jesus was known for spending 40 days in the desert without food. Gandhi was renowned for his 17 hunger strikes, starving himself for up to 21 days at a time in nonviolent protest. Spiritual seekers around the world atone for sin and seek enlightenment through periods of fasting.
Yet Barbieri’s fast is believed to be among the longest ever undertaken, and it was done not for spiritual salvation but for physical health.
This feat has made Barbieri a legend among people who voluntarily choose to fast to transform their bodies, and to fight obesity and pain and disease.
People seem to be more interested than ever in fasting to transform themselves. Silicon Valley startups fast together for productivity and books touting recently developed intermittent fasting diets remain top sellers even a few years after being published. The number of research papers published mentioning fasting has steadily grown, year after year, from 934 in 1980 to more than 5,500 in 2015.
And thanks to the internet, tips, encouragement, and advice are more accessible than ever. It’s always easier to do something “extreme” when others around you are telling you that it’s not so crazy after all, that many people have done it.
Yet despite the long history of fasting, giving up food is not necessarily a good idea. While short fasts are generally considered safe, longer fasts could introduce dangerous health risks, especially for people without the body fat to support those efforts. As a means of restoring health, fasting is a luxury for those who can take supplemental nutrients and don’t struggle with hunger and malnutrition. It’s hard to separate “not eating” for health from potentially deadly eating disorders. Without medical supervision, a temporary fast for health could transition into a dangerous disorder.
But still, radical transformation is a powerful draw.