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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Fasting may be the last thing on your mind this Thanksgiving holiday, but some people swear by its benefits. And at a clinic in southern Germany, fasting is promoted as a cure-all. The Buchinger Clinic sets high in the hills above Lake Constance. It's one of the many European spas that are benefitting from the phenomenon of medical tourism. It doesn't hurt that the national health plans of several countries pay for regular spa trips or that well-off foreigners seem to be more spa happy than ever.
Each spa has its own main attraction. And at Buchinger, people are paying thousands of euros a week not to eat.
NPR's Emily Harris has this report as part of our series on international medicine.
EMILY HARRIS: For a place that's trademark is fasting, there's a lot of attention paid to the food.
Mr. HUBERT HOHLER (Chef, Buchinger Clinic): So, we start always in the morning with our muesli.
HARRIS: Head chef Hubert Hohler 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.
Mr. HOHLER: For lunch, we have a stuffed red pepper. It's stuffed with a vegetable ragu with tofu and roasted pine nuts.
HARRIS: The majority of visitors do fast, but here, that means 250 calories a day.
Mr. HOHLER: For the people who are fasting, we have celery broth today for lunch or the fresh pressed juice. Today, it's pineapple.
HARRIS: Early morning, in the clinic's basement, a kitchen assistant dumps dozens of small ripe pineapples in a power crusher and pulps them.
(Soundbite of juicer)
HARRIS: A pressing machine squeezes out every last drop of juice. It's served to fasters a few hours later in the upstairs salon with the sweeping view of the lake.
Peter van der Lugt from Amsterdam sips his juice slowly. He's on day four of a two-week fast.
Mr. PETER VAN DER LUGT: It's not that I've given up eating, but it's good to find out that you can do without for some time.
HARRIS: 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 Lancet showed fasting followed by a controlled vegetarian diet helped relieve rheumatoid arthritis.
Critics say fasting can be dangerous. Clinic director Raymound Wilhelmi stresses that patients here are under medical supervision.
Dr. RAYMOUND WILHELMI (Clinic Director, Buchinger Clinic): Fasting is not a Sunday afternoon walk. 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.
HARRIS: Chief Dr. 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.
Dr. CHRISTIAN KUHN (Chief Doctor, Buchinger Clinic): We have an approach that body, mind and spirit are an entity. And we don't work just with the body.
HARRIS: 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.
Unidentified Woman: It's electric breathing. The…
HARRIS: Exercise is a big part of the program here, especially since many people come just to lose weight.
Buchinger staffs say that fasting requires physical and mental stimulation in a place conducive to inner reflection in order to get what this clinic sees itself as selling: transformation.
Anna van der Wee, heading home after a two-week fast, said the experience triggered a new level of clarity.
Ms. ANNA VAN DER WEE: It opens your mind. How 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 all the time you don't spend thinking about food.
HARRIS: Tarik Mohana, an Egyptian-born lawyer living in London, came here mainly to detoxify his body.
Mr. TARIK MOHANA (Lawyer): When you go through the process, you realize how unhealthy you are, and how healthy you become, and it's still possible to become. For a while, every once in a while, it's good to just completely let your body detox, get everything out.
HARRIS: He says all this while smoking a cigarette.
Mr. MOHANA: 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.
HARRIS: 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 here at the clinic it's seen as evidence the treatment offers patients regular regeneration.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Uberlingen, Germany.
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