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Clinic Offers 'Transformation' Through Fasting

Chef Hubert Hohler in Buchinger's larder. His vegetarian menu is seasonal and completely organic.
Emily Harris, NPR
Chef Hubert Hohler in Buchinger's larder. His vegetarian menu is seasonal and completely organic.
Most of the vegetables in this antipasto are baked to keep the calories down. The chef says they taste better that way, too.
Emily Harris, NPR /
Most of the vegetables in this antipasto are baked to keep the calories down. The chef says they taste better that way, too.
Gabriele Kutschke, a kitchen assistant at Buchinger, makes fresh juice every morning. Fasting patients actually get to eat 250 calories a day diet; the lunchtime juice is a highlight.
Emily Harris, NPR /
Gabriele Kutschke, a kitchen assistant at Buchinger, makes fresh juice every morning. Fasting patients actually get to eat 250 calories a day diet; the lunchtime juice is a highlight.
The Buchinger Clinic in southern Germany offers a sweeping view of Lake Constance.
Emily Harris, NPR /
The Buchinger Clinic in southern Germany offers a sweeping view of Lake Constance.

At a clinic high in the hills above Lake Constance in southern Germany, people pay thousands of dollars a week to not eat. The Buchinger Clinic is famous for promoting fasting as a cure-all. There is little hard science to back up the program, but that doesn't lessen the appeal.

And for a place whose trademark is fasting, there's a lot of attention paid to the food.

"We start always in the morning with our muesli," says head chef Hubert Hohler, who is in charge of the very low fat, very fresh and fully organic menu. Some guests choose an 800- or 1,200-calorie diet over fasting.

"For lunch, we have a stuffed red pepper. It's stuffed with a vegetable ragu with tofu and roasted pine nuts," he says.

The majority of visitors do fast, but at the clinic, that means eating 250 calories a day.

"For the people who are fasting, we have celery broth today for lunch or the fresh pressed juice. Today, it's pineapple," Hohler says.

Peter van der Lugt from Amsterdam sips his juice slowly in a salon with a sweeping view of the lake. He's on day four of a two-week fast.

"It's not that I've given up eating," he says. "But it's good to find out that you can do without for some time."

Debating Fasting's Merits

Fasting proponents claim that regularly stopping food can help a range of diseases, particularly chronic inflammations or intestinal problems. There are few peer-reviewed studies on fasting, although one published in the British medical journal The Lancet showed fasting followed by a controlled diet helped relieve rheumatoid arthritis.

Critics say fasting can be dangerous. Clinic director Raymound Wilhelmi stresses that visitors at Buchinger are under medical supervision.

"Fasting is not a Sunday afternoon walk," he says. "It's not so easy as people say, 'Oh, I just will stop eating.' It's not that way, especially with people who have some illnesses, who are already, you know, not so young anymore and have some problems — not only physical problems but also psychological problems."

The clinic's chief doctor, Christian Kuhn, says fasting naturally leads people to focus inward and opens them to what he calls "spiritual nutrition" — what people really need, he says, to heal or change their lives.

"We have an approach that body, mind and spirit are an entity," Kuhn says. "And we don't work just with the body."

So the clinic offers psychotherapy, cultural evenings out, treatments from acupuncture to adding oxygen to the blood and relaxation classes reflecting a wide range of trends. Exercise is a big part of the program, especially because many people come just to lose weight.

Selling Transformation

Buchinger staff members say that fasting requires physical and mental stimulation in a place conducive to inner reflection to get what the clinic sees itself as selling: transformation. Anna van der Wee, heading home after a two-week fast, says the experience triggered a new level of clarity.

"It opens your mind," she says. "It gives you a sense of precision and sharpness and yet, at the same time, wideness. So it gives you a larger perspective on things. Maybe it's because [of] all the time you don't spend thinking about food."

Tarik Mohana, an Egyptian-born lawyer living in London, came mainly to detoxify his body.

"When you go through the process, you realize how unhealthy you are, and how healthy you become, and it's still possible to become," he says. "Every once in a while, it's good to just completely let your body detox, get everything out."

Mohana says all this while smoking a cigarette.

"Well, considering the fact that I smoke a pack a day, and here I'm down to four cigarettes a day, I think that's a remarkable achievement," he says.

Buchinger's guests are increasingly foreign and getting younger, and about two-thirds are repeat customers. In traditional health care, that might be considered failure, but at the clinic it's seen as evidence the treatment offers regular regeneration.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.