ON a week-long fasting holiday in sunny southern Portugal, I lost over 7lbs.
My interest in fasting was first sparked by the book Fast Your Way to Health, by Lee Bueno.
The foreword from fasting expert Alan Goldhamer said it all: “Fasting is perhaps the most powerful tool in the healthcare arsenal and when it is used appropriately is a safe and effective means of helping the body to heal itself.”
Wallowing in a gluttonous fog of self-loathing, I light a cigarette and resolved to fast.
About 6,600 cigarettes later, I jetted off to the Algarve to Vila Mimosa, Vitalise Portugal’s detox retreat centre in the town of Gale, a few kilometres west of Albufeira on Portugal’s south coast.
There, I would forego food for three days on a juice-only diet, followed by four days of raw, vegan ‘mild fasting’ with meals limited to 800 calories per day.
On arrival, there was an introductory tour through the villa’s impressive pool area with jacuzzi and spa, complete with sauna and treatment rooms.
The living room features long deep couches, comfy cushions and cosy blankets with a vast selection of herbal teas to hand. Best of all, the villa comes with two giant log fires surrounded by bespoke armchairs and footstools, the perfect spot to kick back with a spritzer.
The primary aim of a detox fast is to allow the digestive system to rest.
An estimated 65% of the body’s energy is consumed by digestion after eating, possibly more for those of us loading up on processed foods.
The food industry promotes breakfast, lunch and dinner, peppered with snacks, but given our more sedentary office-based lifestyles, we are consuming far too many calories.
According to a global study of obesity published last year, Ireland’s population has overweight and obesity levels over the European average.
The study, which was carried out by the University of Washington in the US, found that 26.5% of Irish girls and 16% of Irish boys under the age of 20 are classed as overweight or obese.
Weight, food, health and exercise are all hot topics among clients at Vila Mimosa, but the lack of food is compensated for in all other aspects.
Staff are super supportive, with small gestures that make a big impact such as hot-water bottles handed out in the evenings (placed under the right-side ribs to aid liver detoxification.)
The daily programme consisted of a 7am wake-up call which you can ignore if you wish, followed by stretching, a two-hour hike, then breakfast.
This is followed by some downtime, usually spent relaxing on the couch with a book, then a body-toning class and lunch.
Afternoon free time gives visitors the chance to sunbathe, this is followed by aqua aerobics, another rest and at 7pm our evening artillery against hunger pangs: ‘The Soup’ — a thick vegetable broth.
For the first three days of the fast, breakfast and lunch consisted of a single glass of varied juices, some repugnant, some delicious.
Within 24 hours I felt lighter, livelier. A few cups of senna tea had cleared me out, my intestines were feeling pristine.
Lounging in the luxurious surroundings, indoor and out, felt wonderful.
I was still smoking at this stage so that helped stave off hunger pangs throughout the day.
On the first full day of fasting, the Vila Mimosa team conduct a weigh-in. My body weight was within the normal range for my height, 29.7% of it was fat and my body mass index was 23.6% — all normal.
My visceral fat stored around the organs is scored at 4, anything under 10 is fine, according to Vila Mimosa manager Astrid Van Der Krogt who is from Holland.
She asked me what I needed help with and I told her that I’m chronically addicted to sugar and cigarettes. Together we resolved to cut my sugar level to as close to zero as possible, meaning I would survive on various concoctions of juiced vegetable for the next three days.
I should expect to feel worse before any improvement, Astrid said.
The programme is adapted to each individual’s needs and the ingredients of their juice is set accordingly. Juices take various forms: carrot, ginger, beetroot. Cucumber, spinach, lettuce. Avocado and celery.
Most commonly, says Astrid, guests arrive complaining of digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, joint and intestine problems and menopause.
“A lot of people come here and they are tired, maybe at a cross point in their life. The groups tend to support each other, talking through ideas and therapies. At the end of the week, most guests are more rested, their mind is clearer, they might have new ideas about their life and can become unstuck,” she said.
For me, the few days were fine, I had my cigarettes and smiled serenely. Things changed when the pack ran out. On day three after a 30km bike ride through the countryside, I felt weak.
Then I hallucinated. A tray of baked buns, on closer inspection, were, in fact, sea shells. I was inconsolable.
That night, sitting down to The Soup, I was fighting back tears. And later, in the dead of night, when all was quiet, I sneaked down into the kitchen.
Like a child in a sweetshop, I chomped down a handful of sweet almonds. Still ravenous, I sucked on a juicy sweet pear. My midnight feast tasted better than anything I’ve ever eaten.
The following day, the fourth of the programme, food was back on the menu — hallelujah! Calories were limited to 800 per day.
Created by the villa’s wonderful chef Karen, these miniature meals were vegan, raw and incredibly intricate. Silence descended over the table as we each savoured every spoonful, chewing everything within an inch of its life.
Detox coach Jacqueline Van Lieshout, a Dutch food writer and our mentor for the week advised that cravings are often the result of something the body needs, such as magnesium. We are eating too much and too often, according to Jacqueline.
“It is nothing to do with calorie counting or restrictions. The main goal of my book (From Trashcan to Temple in 28 Days) is to help people make wiser decisions. Food intake is really dynamic, nobody really knows the truth, it is personal and different for everybody. The purer and cleaner you eat the better you body will respond,” she said.
By the end of the week, I felt energised, strong, happy. My skin was clear and I’d begun sleeping through the night. I’d dropped over 7lbs, about half was muscle and a little more was fat.
My visceral fat was down to three, body mass index down to 22% and I’d lost 2cm from my waist. My overall weight was down to just over 9st.
And the real miracle? I gave up smoking. I didn’t touch a cigarette for three wonderful months until a robbery at my house drove me back into the clutches of nicotine. But it’s nothing that another trip to Vila Mimosa won’t fix.
* Vitalise Portugal: www.vitaliseportugal.com
* Fight cravings by having something convenient when you need it, in your car or handbag. Be ahead of that moment, be prepared.
* There is as much sugar in a glass of apple juice from concentrate as there is in a glass of coke. Be aware of hidden sugars. Fructose is very hard on the liver. Eat the apple instead.
* Chocolate cravings could be a sign of a lack of magnesium. Craving always mean you are lacking in certain micro-nutrients.
* If you want to eat something sweet, have nuts with it. When you eat something sweet combine it with fat because the sugars will be released more slowly into your body.
* Choose darker chocolate. Opt for better quality and a higher cocoa percentage, you will eat less.
* While in the supermarket, imagine your great grandmother is with you, and only buy what she considers to be food.
* Stay on the periphery of the supermarket, where the products that will go off in a short period of time are stocked.
* Make sure there are lots of colours on your plate, not just beige, brown and bright pink from a factory.
* Start walking.