“The secret of “The Cure” is all in the chewing,” my new Spanish dinner companion informs me.
We are seated beside each other in the startlingly white dining room of Austria’s top detox destination, or as some more astute guests like to call it, Europe’s finest “health prison”.
“I am sure of it,” she reiterates, her eyes widening.
“Sometimes at home I eat like my dog – so fast – and then I complain, “Oh I am such a poor creature, my stomach hurts so much. But here I have no problems at all.”
“Think about it,” she adds. “We are basically eating baby food.”
I take time to mull over this analogy – that we are forking down the pureed banquet of infants – and come to the conclusion that she is totally right.
Although usually favoured by the likes of Russian oligarchs, their glitzy spouses, the odd celebrity and Europeans, a large proportion of the guests this week appear to be British. Moreover we have all of us, under no duress, willingly signed-up to be purged of our vices through whatever means necessary.
And crucially, as pointed out by my Castilian comrade earlier: one of these means will be the re-training of our eating habits, namely learning how to chew our food to mush before swallowing. Not to inhale it all in one sitting (memo to self).
“The Cure” or the “Mayr Diet” is the invention of Austrian-born Dr. Franz Mayr whose fascination with digestion and restoring patients back to health in the 20th century led him to assembling the strict components for this lifestyle: to promote alkalinity in the body, chewing each mouthful 30 to 40 times until food resembles liquid, raw food only before four, sufficient fluids between meals, plenty of exercise and eating the right foods (more of this later).
It is practiced in several clinics across Europe. But here at Viva, the programme has been developed by Dr. Harold Stossier: a man with a quietly confident voice, an impressive grey beard and a brain-full of facts that will soon put an end to all your bloating and digestive problems. Oh and of course not forgetting his white-haired accomplice, his wife Christina.
During my time here, preceded by a particularly indulgent trip to Vienna, I am tested, challenged, cry, laugh and grin inanely at tiny little pleasures, including an extra piece of bread or a cup of luke warm tea. Yes really.
I arrive late on Tuesday afternoon at the clinic, it’s raining and I am starving despite having already guzzled the two rolls and banana I sneaked in surreptitiously from the train and ate ceremoniously as – my “last supper”. However once I deposit my belongings in my suite (rather comfortable, light and airy – and nothing like the tired, ugly modern asylum described by others*.) my hunger is not relieved by the grim and rather meagre offerings at dinnertime: a single bowl of potato soup, hard (or more likely stale) bread in the shape of a large coil, and the choice of a side dish of protein, I have the avocado mousse. It is placed on my table with a flourish from the waitress that suggests she has set down a feast for the eyes but when I look down, it is a petite glass full of green puree. Still, I devour the lot.
“The secret of “The Cure” is all in the chewing”
* Viva, you see, has been “vacationing” as it were, and much to my luck, at the Lake Hotel and Spa resort while the clinic in its previous guise across the other side of Lake Worth is being ripped down and refashioned – open from April 2015)
The atmosphere in the dining room, which overlooks the picturesque scenes of Lake Worth, is one of almost silence. I have read about the eerie refectory-like dinner-times and hushed tones among the guests but take no notice and happily chat away to my neighbour (The Spanish) and three other women seated themselves to my left soon begin a conversation which goes something like this:
“What is that you have there? – Oh three pieces fish! Why do I not have fish on my plate?”
“I don’t know, but it’s very nice. The seasoning is excellent.”
“I will ask the waitress,” replies the first. “Excuse me, why is my friend here allowed fish? I have potatoes again. I do not want potatoes.”
“I am sorry,” says the waitress in a strong Austrian accent. “The doctor has said you have to follow a special diet at the moment.”
Cue huge sigh – the sound of resignation by woman number three accepting her fish-less fate – after all we have all chosen it.
And so the Viva experience begins: the longing, the stomach rumbling, the gazing at others plates when they are given an extra sliver of avocado, one more potato, an egg – a piece of grilled fish.
The extreme romance of our surroundings – some of the most beautiful I have ever encountered and which would not be out of place in a quixotic novella – is dulled somewhat by the realities of the following day. Once you have eaten breakfast (always between 7.30-9.30pm) it is time to see the doctor, in my case Christina Stossier M.D. who floats around the clinic in a white linen tunic and matching trousers with a stack of pearls around her neck and a wide smile.
I explain with conviction that I believe I am pretty healthy: I have after all prescribed myself onto the wellbeing wagon of green juices, an array of sugar alternatives, lots of raw food and I am practically vegan. However, I still have problems with my stomach – a never-ending tavern of delights including bloating and pain, my sleep is often disrupted and my skin could definitely be clearer, not to mention the occasional ringing in my ears or the fact that my sinuses are often blocked and so often find it hard to breathe.
I leap onto the medical chair and she begins to examine me.
“Lift your top up,” she says before beginning to poke and press my middle. ““Your small intestine is spasticated,” she concludes before conducting an Applied Kinesology test which reveals I’ve overdone it on the potatoes – I must not eat tubers for a minimum of six months to allow my immune response to reset (“Most of our food incompatibilities are acquired. You have eaten too much of it,” her voice echoes in my already ringing ears). I am also deficient in almost all B-vitamins, and I have a mild case of Candida – an overgrowth of yeast in my gut. She then sets to work with administering an abdominal massage which patients must undergo everyday.
“Stop with the juices,” she says firmly. “You have a situation of fermentation in your gut.”
Yikes! What does that mean?
Dr. Stossier continues: “Juicing is mostly an overload of vegetables, which is fine but you should have them cooked. People come to us following this kind of “alkaline diet” taking in all these green juices but what we are finding when we do the blood tests is they are not at all alkaline at all, their bodies are acidic.
“We assume this is caused by an overload of raw vegetables. Your body has to work extra hard to digest these and when you mix them in a glass of raw juice you should look critically how many vegetables you need to fill a glass and ask yourself, would I be able to chew the same amount raw? And everyone would give up much earlier.
“There is this misconception that more of “good” is better, and in this case it is not. Because when you have these juices you are missing out the first important chemical step of the digestion process.”
This is all news to me, and means that I have some re-thinking to do about the lifestyle and diet I choose to follow. So far I have blindly followed many diets or “wellbeing fads” which all claim with such fervour to guarantee health, glowing skin and a strong constitution. A green juice or two were my daily staples but Dr. Stossier has explained: we were built with teeth for a reason, and if you can’t chew it, don’t swallow it.
For the rest of my time here I must take a cocktail of vitamins and supplements everyday, a generous dose (about two teaspoons) of magnesium citrate every morning, which will literally “flush out” any toxins in my body (It tastes rather like salty lemon juice and means you are perpetually running to the “powder room” – if you get my drift.) and Viva’s pièce de résistance: Base Powder, which is reminiscent of dusty, milky water. It contains sodium bicarbonate and is designed to rebalance our body’s alkalinity levels. Delicious.
Plus I am expected to drink at least two-and-a-half litres of water a day to keep everything moving. Initially I refuse to purchase all the tubs of vitamins I am told I require through sheer obstinacy – I am convinced my body is healthy enough without being plied with vitamins from extraneous sources, not to mention the cost. No, I will go it alone.
Well, I soon come to realise my stubbornness is an error, and to my detriment. Over the next couple of days, apart from experiencing the “detox headache” – apparently this searing pain at the back of your eyes and across your forehead is perfectly normal, expected even – I also feel extremely shaky, dizzy, have extreme heart palpitations and find that I can’t sleep.
This, I am told when I eventually drag my quivering body to the medical reception, could have been prevented by taking both the potassium and magnesium pills the doctor had initially recommended to counteract the effects of the detox. A strong shot of potassium should do it, they tell me, and so I am packed off with a couple of sachets which I dissolve in water and neck immediately. I am told to sedate myself with drops of Tropfen (or Bach’s Rescue Remedy with which others with a fragile constitution will be all too familiar). I down half the bottle. After a few hours I am already feeling much better, blissfully calmness – serene even.
The next day, I am given a full schedule and find myself lining up in the Kneipp Department to undergo some nasal reflex therapy to treat my sinus issues. A lovely bright-eyed, dewy-skinned Canadian nurse called Lindsay, sits me down on one of the rows of chairs and dips a cotton bud in some herbal-scented oil.
“Relax,” she says. And precedes to shove it up one of my nostrils with such dexterity it makes me breathe in sharply.
“Oooooooooof!” I scream. “What on earth are you doing!” I dart away from her and watch her suspiciously out of the one eyelid I possess which is not now streaming.
“Don’t worry, it gets easier every time, it’s just the shock!” she explains cheerily.
Soon my nose is also streaming, which is exactly what is supposed to happen apparently, and I am blinking frantically at the other guests which have arrived for the show. Lindsay then defty moves the bud twice more so it hits a total of three different angles per nostril.
She is right, it does get better, and soon I look forward to my sessions in the Kneipp rooms when Lindsay regales me with jolly stories to distract me from my torment.
This agony is followed by an electrolysis foot bath to draw out more impurities – the water turns an orange-brown colour.
Perhaps it’s the prudish British part of me which is horrified when I suddenly notice that everyone around me is shuffling around in oversized slippers as if walking around in their own conservatories at home. In fact, all the guests appear to have cocooned themselves in the signature Viva white towelling robes laid out on our beds every morning. Goodness what next, portable drips? By my fifth day I have conceded. I am now part of the fluffy white brigade and waddle down to breakfast in my flannels having decided it is far more practical not to wear clothes if I am only going to take them off again within a matter of hours.
“The body needs rhythm,” I can hear Dr Stossier’s voice, complete with Austrian intonations, in my head now, I’m absolutely sure of it. “They take their sandwich on the road, they drink their coffee while running after the bus or the tube or whatever and this is not an ideal situation. You wouldn’t ask a racehorse to take its meal while it is in the middle of its training!
Then to have lunch, with no snacking in between. Your body needs time to digest the food properly in between your meals, this is to do with blood sugars too. There is no need to have five meals a day, this doesn’t solve all these problems we have with digestion.”
The elephants continue tramping around in my head for a few more days and then suddenly I wake up one morning and feel as if the cloud has cleared. The pachyderms have packed up and moved on and I am left with a brighter, clearer head.
I immediately put on my running gear and head out to the Lake, all this sitting around has given me cabin fever and I am itching to get back to my exercise routine.
I am met with incredulity by the other guests, now my surrogate family for the week. Seriously, there is literally nothing we haven’t shared together – graphic bathroom chat, hunger pains, intense food debates, we have discussed it all – there are no limits here.
“What are you doing? You are crazy? Going for a run? How do you have any energy?”
But I do, reems of it, and I am off cantering around the Lake before they can even swallow their base powder.
By now, I feel I have gotten into the swing of my days here. Rise early, take your powders, go down for breakfast, then detox treatments, a bit exercise if you fancy it (there are various group sessions put on but none are arduous enough for my liking although I do enjoy the one-on-one Power Plate training with professional hockey player Claudia) and you can also book yourself in with the beauty salon to while away the time. The detoxifying and slimming sea wrap is particularly enjoyable. After being wrapped up in foil you are then cushioned in a waterbed and left to sweat out your toxins (I fall asleep).
A few of my new chums, no longer able to cope with the mean food rations, have broken out for the day to the local town. They return regaling us with stories of cappuccinos, chips and pizza. “It was magical,” they say. We promise to keep their secret quiet.
Apart from one bright orange puree I take issue against, I am pleasantly surprised by the food. You really can tell there is a great deal of skill behind each dish – the gluten-free pumpkin strudel is divine, as is the amaranth risotto – and I find myself disappointed to discover I’ve missed the week’s cookery lesson with Viva’s chef and instead immediately add a copy of the recipe book to the growing list of supplies I find myself leaving this place with.
I don’t feel the need to follow my friends to the local café, why would I when I am suddenly feeling so healthy and my head so clear? My only indiscretion is one morning I am so feverishly hungry that one of my dear new pals passes me some of his omelette at breakfast sub rosa (for some reason he’s managed to negotiate a much more colourful morning meal than mine).
Another massive positive about this clinic are the daily massages, designed to help your body relax and to hurry along the detox process. I find that my masseuse Karin has deft fingers which are able to prise away the tensest knots in my back – and there are many – she is also a trained reflexologist with an immense amount of patience for last minute dashes to the “powder room”. “We have all been there,” she smiles.
For the Stossiers ensure that their entire legion of staff have followed the programme, at least once in their working lives, and encourage them to take it up again whenever they need a boost. There are no shortage of sympathetic smiles and ears here. When Dr Stossier is unable to see me, I instead have an appointment with Dr Ines Weidner, she is excellent, and only good reports are also espoused by my Viva chums about the handsome Dr Werner Zancolo.
By the end of the week I have lost over half a stone, my skin is glowing and my energy levels are much higher. I feel almost invincible, lighter physically and emotionally, and I have made a whole host of new friends – we have since formed a post-Viva help group on Whatsapp which consists mainly of sending naughty pictures of food we were forbidden while at the clinic.
But has the Viva mentality worked? Despite our subversive group efforts on my return to London I find I am much more aware of my chewing habits at mealtimes, I have also become almost militant about trying not to eat raw after four, and my daily green juice addiction has been curbed to one or two a week. It must be pointed out that the idea behind the Viva way of life is not to be a punishing, gruelling slog, in spite of these anecdotes. It is a method that some (the disciplinarians among us) are able to keep up, others (more probably) can maintain some of the rules, and most, even the ones with the most terrible eating habits, bring the overall Viva attitude towards food back home with them.
Even if it just makes you rethink the way we greedily shovel food into our mouths without a thought for our digestion or perhaps makes you question the origins of our food (everything at Viva is organic) or if it teaches us only to be mindful as we wolf down a wrap or a salad at lunchtime and forget to savour the moment, they have done their jobs, I believe. Viva Mayr? Vive l’art de macher!*
*Long live the art of chewing
The new 2015 clinic Viva Mayr Altaussee is now open
Visit the Viva Mayr Clinic from £3,500 per week vivamayr.com