This section is from the book "Practical Dietetics With Special Reference To Diet In Disease", by William Gilman Thompson. Also available from Amazon: Practical Dietetics with Special Reference to Diet in Disease.
Of late years several persons have attempted prolonged feats of starvation, tempted by love of notoriety or desire of gain, by exhibiting themselves for the gratification of public curiosity. In several instances they have been carefully watched by medical experts and there is every reason to believe that the fast has been conducted with honesty. In at least two of these authenticated instances, those of Tanner and Succi, the complete starvation period has been prolonged for over forty days. In both cases fluids were allowed, and one of the men relieved intense epigastric pain and food craving by condensed medication.
Succi was an Italian who, in 1890, undertook an absolute fast of forty-five days, during which period he lost 42½ pounds and drank 1,154 ounces of water, or an average of about 25^ ounces per diem. This he took in the forms of plain water, mineral water, and ice. He became alarmingly emaciated during the fast, but even on the last day had strength to walk about the room. He resumed eating by first taking cocoa, and subsequently bouillon and other light articles, and made a complete recovery. His mind remained clear throughout. He took occasional doses of a few drops of an elixir supposed to contain opium.
There have been a number of cases from time to time recorded of "fasting girls." They are usually of nervous hysterical temperament. On reaching the age of puberty they become dyspeptic and grow shy and disinclined to eat what is good for them, although they may gratify abnormal cravings surreptitiously. They are very apt to be at the same time strongly impressed by religious beliefs, and in their disordered mental condition to acquire the delusion that it is sinful to eat. This delusion becomes fixed, and they then are regarded as "freaks " and achieve much newspaper advertising. They should be treated as ordinary cases of hysteria simply, and be removed from oversympathetic friends and dealt with kindly but firmly. Hydrotherapy yields excellent results, and even a good spanking may not be amiss in awaking the patient to a realising sense of her errors. The claim sometimes made in such cases as those just described, that they lose no weight, is nonsensical, for the body must diminish in weight continually by evaporation of water from the lungs and skin and its passage from the kidneys and by the exhalation of carbon.
Edward Smith estimates that the quantity of carbon exhaled in one day of fasting is equivalent to that contained in twenty ounces of bread.
When either voluntary or forced starvation takes place very gradually, especially in elderly people, their systems become slowly accustomed to very small quantities of food.
Luigi Cornaro was a Venetian gentleman who advocated a very abstemious diet, and whose own case is often cited in illustration of the smallest quantity of food which may support life. He was born in 1463; after a reckless and intemperate youth he reformed, and by careful dieting prolonged his life to one hundred and three years. He published a Treatise on a Temperate Life, and for the last forty-eight years of his own existence he subsisted on a daily allowance of twelve ounces of vegetable food with fourteen ounces of light wine. He occasionally ate eggs, but rarely took any other form of animal food.
There is much wisdom in some of his doctrines, but, unfortunately, no one else who has attempted to practise his rules has met with similar success in prolonging life. The majority of mankind would undoubtedly prefer to live fewer years for the pleasure of being less abstemious.
Periods of voluntary fasting of greater or less duration are recommended and practised by devotees of many religious sects. Such fasting was formerly carried to a greater extent by ascetics than at the present time. As a means of mental discipline or cultivation of will power, fasting may in some instances be defended, but fasting "to be useful must be voluntary " (Chambers), otherwise it is apt to cause irritability of temper, and it may even lead to deception to obtain food. Such fasting may be carried to an excessive and injurious degree unless it be definitely limited and supervised. It is more powerful in its effect, moreover, if it is but seldom undertaken. If a man so reduces himself by fasting that he cannot use his intellectual faculties with accustomed vigour he may be sure that he is doing himself injury. Better than complete fasting for purposes of mental discipline or religious motives is the temporary elimination from the diet of accustomed luxuries, or giving up such articles of daily use as butter, sugar, salt, wine, tobacco, etc.
This, in fact, is a custom practised by many persons during the Lenten season.
The day has long since passed when fasting can be regarded as favouring either clearness of intellect, muscular strength, or endurance, and, as Gerland has said, "the ethnologist can trace the physical and mental decay of whole nations to a long course of insufficient food".
Dr. Denis, of Brussels University, presented an interesting report at the International Congress of Anthropology for 1892, showing striking parallelism in the curves of famine and crime, and of marriages as inversely related to the price of wheat.