The starvation vacation has been incredibly popular for years and become a multi-million-pound mainstay of the spa industry but now, slowly but surely, respected big-name brands are turning their backs on this controversial aspect of wellness. The latest to eschew the lack of chew are Amanresorts and Rocco Forte Hotels. Both have recently launched wellness programmes that promote clean-eating programmes over extreme detoxes, such methods are less radical but, long term, are far more successful.
Aman’s regional spa director Benjamin Carter, who was instrumental in designing the group’s new wellness immersions at Amanpuri in Phuket, says: “In many people’s minds, detox involves starvation, pain and sacrifice. This is something that we want to move away from. We want to highlight a return to physiological functioning and digestive balance alongside de-stressing, reducing inflammation and nourishing the body in a programme specific to that guest, at that time.”
Irene Forte, Rocco’s daughter and Forte’s brand manager, has taken a similar approach with the new spa philosophy that she has developed for the company including the flagship spa at Verdura on Sicily. Central to her thinking is Forte Nourish. “It is not a diet,” explains Forte, “it’s about eating nourishing food that’s extremely tasty. Nowadays, people are increasingly conscious about what they eat and want to know where their food has come from; that it’s fresh, seasonal, high quality and even organic. Most importantly, we need to ensure that our dishes are delicious, despite being gluten, meat, sugar and dairy free, so we work side-by-side with some of the world’s best nutritionists. We definitely don’t want people to be hungry at our hotels.”
They join other clean-eating advocates such as Mandarin Oriental which worked for a while with America’s renowned Mayo Clinic to devise a healthy eating plan at its Turkish outpost and Frank Marrenbach, managing director of the luxury spa Villa Stéphanie, in Baden-Baden, Germany, which offers a hi-tech, holistic approach to weight management. “Detox doesn’t work. It makes people miserable,” says Marrenbach. “We’ve spent years researching our approach. Most people just need to make small, sustainable changes. We’re not going to make false promises. You won’t lose much weight here, but you will develop a better feeling for a healthy lifestyle.”
Scientists have always pooh-poohed the idea of detox, which is based on the claim that harmful waste products — ‘toxins’ — build up in the body, undermining the condition of your organs, and that they can only be removed by embarking on a near-starvation diet that concentrates on certain foods and cuts out others. As the NHS website states: “The concept of detox diets is irrational and many of the promises are wild and exaggerated.” Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, goes even further and says: “The term ‘detox diet’ is a marketing ploy. Spas offer it to attract customers, nothing else.”
I’ve been on several celebrity-endorsed detox retreats. At every one, I have starved, suffered hunger headaches, felt tired and thoroughly miserable, and I left each none the wiser about healthy eating. At one, they talked about tomatoes as though they were the devil’s own food, without providing an adequate explanation why. It’s also surprising how many spas talk about ridding the body of nasty, horrible toxins, yet are happy to offer cosmetic enhancements such as Botox.
The common-sense, sensible eating stance from the above industry heavyweights – that’s heavy in the best possible sense of the word, of course – definitely meets with my approval. A spa break should not be about shedding a kilo a day but about being reminded of good habits and being supplied with practical suggestions of how to incorporate them into your life. Guests should leave refreshed and inspired and with realistic goals for self-improvement to aim for over the following months. Healthy living is not rocket science. I already know the key to it and so do you. Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get eight hours’ sleep a night but we all need encouragement and support to maintain these ideals in our fast-paced and punishing world.
The truth is spa goers are addicted to the quick-fix results of detoxing; while, for spas, detoxing provides an undeniably attractive business model: there’s a pretty decent profit margin in charging clients hundreds of pounds and yet giving them only a few cups of tea and a pep talk each day. So I appreciate this type of retreat isn’t going to disappear overnight. However, now that such high-profile companies are refusing to perpetuate the detox myth, hopefully others will follow suit and its long-term prognosis may prove terminal.