Back in the 80s when green juices weren’t on anyone’s radar, and posh retreats were called health farms, I had my first taste of detox food. Then, it was all about losing weight – dieting basically. The attitude seemed to be to put everyone on restricted calories. I was a naturally slender twenty-something, and at my weigh-in, I had to convince the spa therapist (ie ‘matron’) I wasn’t there to shed the pounds. Even though I was not put on the strictest programme they had at the time, the menu was a dated slimming regime of watery soup and poached fish, miniscule amounts of crudites, and non-exotic fruit. After each meal, I walked away from the chintzy dining room hungry, dissatisfied and frankly feeling deprived. I began to fixate on bags of crisps and Twixes – it was pure re-bound as these were things I wouldn’t eat normally. Luckily, I was with a group of like minded friends and one of us had a car. After making it through the first day on tiny rations, we sped to the local garage to pick up illicit snacks – well, we had to make up the calories in some way. The irony was, I had lost almost half a stone at the end of my stay, but I don’t remember feeling healthy or re-vitalised.
Still, it was a reflection of the times – we’d just come emerged from the 70s when the grapefruit diet (half, grilled for breakfast and dinner!) was in Vogue – things have come a long, long way since then. Spa retreats are much more luxurious 5 star affairs, often on paradise beaches. Our eating habits have changed beyond recognition. Michelin star chefs are household names, and High Street supermarkets stacked with goodies from around the globe – everything from couscous to Manchego cheese. We’re even into baking our own cakes, when back in the day, it was cooler to have Mr Kipling on the tea table. And while all of this is certainly good for our taste buds and ostensibly good for our health, it’s not necessarily the best thing for our waistbands. And so, we consistently find ourselves back at diet default, albeit these days disguised as the latest detox/food allergy or steeped in new scientific discovery (the Atkins, the metabolic, the 5:2).
Since that first foray to the health farm, I’ve tried my fair share of new fangled healthy/detox/diets. A yogic cleanse (throwing up salt water – not fun, but weirdly cleansing for mind and certainly for the insides) and juice fasting (actually quite satisfying if carefully balanced with enough essential nutrients to stop you running to the nearest newsagents for a chocolate fix). But here’s the thing. In the past year or so, I’ve enjoyed some of the most delicious cuisine I’ve ever eaten in spa retreats/wellness resorts (whatever name we want to give them…..). I’m not a vegan, but I savoured the mouth watering tofu scramble for brunch cooked by a Balinese chef who trained in California; tucked into the most delicately savoury/sweet Pad Thai (under 300 calories but who’s counting) invented by a Michelin trained Thai chef and have endured days of juice-only cleansing to break my fast on home baked granola with coconut yoghurt and flax seed bread spread with richly satisfying almond nut butter. It was this kind of truly nourishing spa eating which taught me a few important lessons:
Little and often works
Skipping meals – whether to lose weight, or simply through being too busy to prepare food and sit and eat – is a false economy. Meal times (when not fasting) at the best spas in the world are sacred – everything else is built around that. Breakfast is usually after the first exercise class (or two!), followed what seems pretty swiftly by lunch (you soon build up an appetite) and early dinner. The secret seems to be in both the timing and portions. The common theme is that each meal is pretty equal in size. At my favourite Ayurvedic retreats in India, each meal has three courses – soup, salad and hot dish, making allowance for Westernised breakfast – a ‘healthy’ feast of porridge, eggs, fruit. Even though I consider myself to have a good (ie large) appetite, I did find this tricky at first. I’m not used to a three course lunch. But, the key thing is the portions are small. Not massive platefuls we have become accustomed to, but delicate bowls of soup, side plate servings of salad and main dishes. That way you leave the table feeling like you’ve eaten really well, but you never feel over-full – you’re always hungry for your next meal. In turn, your digestion responds by working more efficiently and crucially, you seem to sleep better not having eaten heavily too close to bed time (it’s thought we need 2-3 hours to digest to get a good nights rest). So, next day you feel like bouncing out of bed earlier looking forward to breakfast, and, energy levels are maintained throughout the day by stopping for that all important lunch. Makes perfect sense – and I’ve found following this common sense plan saves me from doing that classic thing of eating too much at some meals, then grabbing for snacks in-between. And of course, if we want to have a blow-out occasionally (Christmas, celebrations), it’s no big thing as long as we generally stick to a regular, balanced meal times.
Fresh really is best
So it would take a lottery win for me to have the land, the staff and the time to start that bio-dynamic farm and become self-sufficient. But a summer of rarely eating out taught me that the only way to really know what we’re eating is to cook it from scratch. That’s why the spa trend is to grow as much of the food as possible on site, and to pick and prepare it fresh that day. The fact that I would come back feeling so healthy and revived by eating more while I was away at such places had me puzzled since I felt I was eating reasonably healthily at home. And I was – within reason. But I hadn’t realised just how much I was eating ‘out’ and that includes ready prepared salads and even healthy choices off a menu such as grilled fish and vegetables. We just don’t know what has been used in the preparation, in dressings, in added salt. A summer of eating ‘clean’ cuisine (ie fresh organic, local produce, and good quality oils) at home proved my point – I felt better, with more energy, my skin looked clearer and I swear I had less cellulite. It also gets you involved in choosing lovely ingredients, taking care and valuing what you eat too. Always a good thing.
How you eat counts
This valuing what we eat leads into the final big lesson – which is re-learning how to eat properly. Sounds a bit silly, but most of us have truly forgotten. We rarely make time to eat let alone set the table. And it was when I walked into a beautifully light, airy dining room at one particular silent retreat which really shifted my thinking on this. The table would always be set with pristine napkin, matching cutlery and crockery. A different vase of colourful, fesh flowers would be centre stage every day. In other words, the setting was a sensory delight – something I might not have noticed so much if I had been sitting down to the table talking. Before each meal, I would pause, breathe and say a little internal thank you for the food. All of this helped me to slow down and enjoy every mouthful of my meal. To savour and appreciate it, and not to rush and not to over eat. And while I don’t necessarily bring out my best dinner service and have fresh flowers on the table every meal time at home, I make sure I stop, pause and make it an enjoyable experience. Being mindful is a huge step towards truly health conscious eating. That means thinking about our food and making sure it nourishes our minds as much as our bodies.