Adriaane Pielou tries a new, low-sugar regime at the renowned Grayshott Spa Hotel, England
Dusk on a wintry Sunday evening in the English countryside. Eight of us, guinea pigs for the launch of “the Grayshott Programme” – weight-loss and life-change in only one no-sugar, low-carb week – have gathered in the drawing room of this comfortably old-fashioned spot in Surrey for the introductory talk, feeling like participants at the beginning of a murder mystery game.
We’re all here at Grayshott Spa Hotel, a spa since the 1970s that’s an hour from London by train, to try to go into 2013 a few kilos lighter, but apart from that unifying factor (unless I’m not the only sugar addict to have scoffed a jumbo Mars bar at Waterloo railway station in nervous preparation), we’re strangers. One of us – who recently moved to England from Dubai – has checked in but disappeared. Will she turn out to have been whacked over the head in the library by Colonel Mustard? We eye each other discreetly as the programme director starts to explain what’s in store.
It’s the belief at Grayshott that carbohydrates, in the form of sugar, and not fat, are responsible for the worldwide weight gain. There’s so much sugar in the modern diet – in the obvious suspects such as carbonated drinks, cakes and pastries, as well as most processed foods – that the resulting swings in our blood sugar levels encourage us to eat more, explains Elaine Williams, the healthy-looking director of natural therapies.
So in the course of this week, we’re not going to consume sugar or processed carbohydrates. There is also going to be a focus on digestive health because all that sugar affects the efficiency of our digestive systems, and there will be two days of semi-fasting to speed weight loss and give the digestive system a rest.
“But don’t worry about being hungry,” Elaine says cheerfully. “You won’t starve. You’ll be eating healthy, high-protein meals with lots of vegetables for five days, and on the two fasting days you will have just one meal of 500 calories.”
As well as individually prescribed massages and treatments, we’re told, we’ll also be having a daily lecture on the latest nutritional research from visiting experts, followed by informal Q&A sessions. “And at the end of the week,” she promises, “you should not only have lost weight, but learnt how to keep it off – and be healthier – for the long term.”
“Hurrah! We’ll emerge new beings. Always so exciting,” murmurs a rather grand, boho countess-type as we troop off to supper. Among us are a former advertising film-maker, a marketing manager, an 18-year-old actress with digestive problems, and a mother of four taking a break while the grandparents hold the fort at home. The mystery Dubai woman, it turns out rather disappointingly, just has a migraine.
Next morning, we convene again in the room set aside for followers of the programme for breakfast (regular Grayshott guests, slackers who come for just a relaxing stay with a few massages and the odd facial, eat in the main dining room). A faintly repulsive smell of sour cabbage fills the air, emanating from the small bowl at every place setting.
“Sauerkraut,” Elaine explains brightly. Sauerkraut, it seems, is to be our new best friend – a friend we must welcome at the start of every single breakfast, lunch and dinner on the programme. “As Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, said: ‘All illness starts in the gut’. And there are few things better for your gut than sauerkraut,” she says as we gingerly spoon the stuff in. “For good digestion, your gut needs an excellent supply of good bacteria or probiotics.
“Eating sugar has a highly deleterious effect on probiotics. Probiotic production, however, is stimulated by prebiotics, and although there are alternatives, the very best prebiotic is – let’s hear it for the good guy – sauerkraut.”
Without adequate probiotics to enable the breakdown of food, Elaine explains, undigested food remains in the gut, fermenting and causing bloating, gas and, ultimately, as it becomes toxic and crosses from the intestine into the blood stream, all manner of health problems, from spotty skin and aching joints to more serious medical conditions.
Still, once the sauerkraut bowls have been removed, it’s a relief to discover the breakfast menu offers more familiar items such as poached eggs and spinach, hummus and tomatoes, and a muesli made of -protein-rich chia seeds – the latest new superfood.
Protein at breakfast is essential, Elaine says. “If you start the day with sugar-rich carbohydrates – toast and jam, for instance – you’re raising your blood sugar level and setting yourself up to crave sugar all day. Within an hour or two your blood sugar level will have plummeted and you’ll want something else sugary to lift it again, and so it will go on. And if you routinely live like that, you’re a strong candidate for Type 2 diabetes.”
Protein, on the other hand, which should be consumed at every meal, keeps your blood sugar level steady, so you don’t experience any cravings, and means you will feel hungry only when your body needs more nourishment.
Sitting in the lounge at 12.30pm, waiting for the first lecture to start – from nutritionist Stephanie Moore – I am surprised to realise it’s true. I haven’t eaten any wine gums or milk chocolate, my usual grazing fodder, which I usually crave almost permanently, and I don’t feel the slightest bit hungry. By 1.15pm, admittedly, lunch feels very welcome – a choice of grilled chicken, mackerel or vegetables roasted with olive oil, served with salad, nuts and seeds, and virtuous but boring steamed broccoli and cauliflower. After a massage from a therapist with hands like steel and then a yoga class, I’m only -slightly hungry when 7pm arrives and we reconvene for more grilled fish or poultry and steamed veg. And still no cravings. Astonishing.
There’s a nightly film screening, so our group sits companionably in the dark watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; by 9.30pm, I’m in bed with a cup of herbal tea and Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campbell McBride, about how a change of diet to the natural foods today’s nutritionist recommended – whole milk, lean meat, eggs, nuts and seeds, coconut oil to cook with and lots of organically grown vegetables – improves mental as well as physical health.
The window is open as I read, letting in the chilly, pure air and the distant sound of barking foxes – Grayshott is surrounded by large grounds; beyond that is empty countryside. Under my super-warm, extra-light duvet, I couldn’t feel cosier or, unexpectedly, happier. This week is so much more worthwhile than I’d expected.
And that’s pretty much how each day goes, interspersed with tests and treatments – a body composition analysis, blood analysis, castor oil compress, abdominal massage to improve digestion – and the occasional walk in the grounds.
“What a treat it is to be institutionalised,” the boho countess-type says at dinner towards the end of the week. Chomping our sauerkraut, we all agree.
Several of the group have bad headaches for the first few days of the week, none suffering more than the not-so mystery guest from Dubai.
“I blame all that evil irresistible baklava and date mammoul everyone’s addicted to in the Middle East – I can’t believe the withdrawal symptoms I’ve had,” she says, still a bit pale on day five. Still, she hasn’t crept out secretly to buy KitKat and Snickers bars in Grayshott village, as we have been shocked to learn one naughty and very overweight, long-stay guest, also from Dubai, did recently. But generally we’re all feeling surprisingly well and energetic.
It’s a deceptively easy regime, and I’m thrilled with how unexpectedly baggy my jeans feel when I get dressed to leave on the last day. Fantastic: two kilos lost. The test, though, comes on the journey to London as I segue from spa to sightseeing (Grayshott’s proximity to the capital makes a trip to see its sights a possibility).
Previously, when I’ve left a strict spa, despite good intentions I’ve pounced on chocolate at the first opportunity. After a week at the Mayr Clinic in Austria, I sat down for cake and coffee at Klagenfurt airport even before I’d checked in, although they’d kindly packed me some of the stale spelt roll and yogurt they make you live on all week.
But this time I don’t crave anything. No, not a twinge. I wait on the platform at Liphook railway station and remain untempted. I have to admit to a detour at Waterloo into the Maison du Chocolat shop, but only for 80 per cent and 90 per cent dark chocolate – with minimal sugar content, it is packed with vitamins and happily sanctioned by Grayshott. I eat a quarter of a bar, more because it has been a lifelong habit than because I’m driven to it.
Two weeks later, I’ve put almost a kilo back on (full-fat everything is fabulous and filling but you mustn’t overdo it, I realise). But I remain amazed at the result of the simple regime of eating protein. I honestly can’t think of a week that has been more useful in changing how I eat. This has been the first week of my life in which I haven’t had a daily intake of sweets, chocolate and the odd biscuit. It’s quite bizarre not to feel the familiar craving. But I think I will struggle to stay friends with sauerkraut. Sorry, Elaine.
• The seven-day Grayshott Programme costs from £1,295 (Dh7,693) per person, full board, including daily treatments. Grayshott has 59 rooms, 36 spa treatment rooms, including separate male and female steam and sauna facilities, and is set in 19 hectares of grounds (www.grayshottspa.com; 00 44 1428 602 000).