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Four leaders of a cult based on macrobiotic foods and strict diets are under investigation by police in Italy, and they are accused of controlling nearly every aspect of their followers’ lives and reducing them to mere slaves. The leaders manipulated followers, enriched themselves, imposed strict rules, and denied followers contact with their families — all in the name of blind faith.

Sound familiar yet?

Some people have already broken free from the dangerous cult, headed by businessman and macrobiotic food “guru” Mario Pianesi, but authorities say hundreds of people remain under the group’s control.

The group was exposed by police last week, following an investigation which began in 2013 when a young woman, whose weight had plummeted to 35kg (77lb), told police Pianesi had promised her that his “Ma-Pi” diet would cure her illness.

Pianesi has not commented on the allegations. Manuel Formica, a lawyer representing all four accused, said: “This thing is far-fetched and the suspects will do everything to defend their integrity.”

Six people have made formal complaints while two more have come forward over the last week. Carlo Pinto, the investigator leading the case, suspects there could be “hundreds more” who are “still under the cult’s influence”.

False claims about healing illnesses? Check.

Dietary restrictions? Check.

Manipulation through control of everyday activities and seemingly random rituals? Sounds like a cult to me.

The people who have escaped say Pianesi cultivated an influential network, including politicians and the police, by providing them food he said would cure HIV, cancer, diabetes, and other ailments. But his demands went much further than that:

Rules allegedly included banning women from wearing short skirts, make-up and from washing during their period. More bizarre customs were said to include having to get out of bed on the right side and cutting hair and nails on any day of the week other than Tuesday or Thursday.

People were also allegedly banned from laughing too much, using the internet and going to the gym, while men were told that wives who left them were akin to prostitutes.

The rules came about over time,” said Vanda Secondino, who became involved with the group in 1989 after attending one of its first holiday camps.

Pianesi was charismatic. People who were sick would ask for his help with food. Then we started to seek advice for every aspect of our lives and, over time, we lost power and he gained more. We believed we were incapable of managing our own lives.”

Once again, a charismatic leader who thrived on fame and notoriety took advantage of vulnerable people. And he did so by mimicking what other “prophets” had done in the past. He used religion as his template.

I sincerely feel for those who got sucked into this, and I hope this investigation leads to some serious jail time for the leaders — or leeches — of this group. For everyone else, if you need a social group, try to make sure it’s one that doesn’t ban too much laughing or control when you cut your hair or nails.

(Image via Shutterstock)