Health & Grooming

The siren call of slim

After decades spent chasing a sleeker self, Lucia van der Post weighs in with her first-person account of what really works.

May 22 2010
Lucia van der Post

To put things in perspective, I’m not (I think) fat. But, apart from times when I’ve been ill (once in my early 20s weighing in at 7st 11lb), I’ve almost never been as thin as I’d like. I can’t quite remember when it first came to my attention that I wasn’t going to be a tall, skinny bean but was going to stay bogged down in the foothills of the just over five feet, but I think I was about 11, and somebody in the playground called me “stocky”. I can still recall the shock. What, me? Stocky? Never. The problem is I’m only 5ft 2in and when I’m the 8.5st I like to be I don’t feel stocky at all. I feel light and petite. But edge over 9st and, as I do from time to time, head towards 10st, and the old taunt begins to feel true.

So I can scarcely remember a time when I haven’t had what psycho-babblers call “ishoos” with food. I love it. I love cooking it and I love eating it. But every mouthful comes freighted with notions of “good” or “bad”. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, complex carbs, protein – all good. Processed food, saturated fat, sugar – all bad, very bad.

I know I’m not alone. I scarcely know a woman who is happy with her weight. Some young things, yes, of course, who down pizzas, eat cake and look a dream. But grown-up women with children and grandchildren, busy lives and too much to do? Scarcely one. Most can recite the calorific value of almost any foodstuff you care to name. Most could win Mastermind on the subject of diets, foods and the glycaemic index.

The result is that I seem to have spent my life on a diet. I egg myself on with little treats, which I dangle before my errant willpower. If I make it down to below 9st, then I’m allowed to buy the Dries Van Noten I’ve been eyeing up. I’ve even tried the “no new clothes until below 9st” but, since it’s a while since I’ve been there and the wardrobe’s got fatter, that clearly didn’t work. It’s not that I have a lot to lose – a stone would be divine but about 10lb would get me below 9st. It would mean I could get into all the zippy little suits I still have, my stomach would be flat and I could feel happy in trousers again.

There’s scarcely a diet I haven’t tried. In the early years of motherhood, it was the Scarsdale. The principle was simple: for a fortnight you ate three meals a day made up mostly of grapefruit, salad and masses of protein. If you stick to it – and stick to it I did, not once but three times – it works. It’s a good way to lose about 6lb in a fortnight but it’s not a template for real life. Like most of its kin, it should be used to kick-start a proper eating plan, encouraged by some relatively quick weight loss before moving onto something more sensible and long term. For as every dieter will tell you, and to paraphrase Mark Twain’s quip about giving up smoking, “Losing weight’s easy – I’ve done it hundreds of times.” It’s keeping the weight off that’s the problem.

Next came Audrey Eyton’s F-Plan Diet. Based on lots of fibre and filled with starchy suggestions, it never appealed to me. Then we had the Atkins (not too different from the Scarsdale), then new-age thinking – macrobiotics, the juice fast, the tea fast, the detox, hypnotherapy and acupuncture. Acupuncture in the ears, from the wonderful Dr Tamara Voronina, worked by suppressing the appetite in some strange way but just as I’d lost about 3lb I had an attack of sinusitis and Dr Voronina had to deal with that instead. As for wraps, massages, hydrotherapy – all, in my experience, have some immediate effect in improving the tone of the skin, but that’s it – after a couple of days it all wears off.

I haven’t tried every diet going but I’ve tried a good many. Let me tell you what’s worked for me. To those of us reared on the notion that it’s all about carbs and calories, the biggest revelation to me was meeting Professor Charles Clark. He became interested in nutrition via his speciality – diabetes, and diabetic ophthamology in particular. When he found that by changing his patients’ diets their insulin levels could be controlled and their diabetes much improved he became even more interested in nutrition. He was the first person who explained to me that the principal weapon in a healthy diet (and thus healthy weight) is lowering insulin levels. Calories matter up to a point, but much more important is to reduce refined carbohydrates. It is carbs that stimulate insulin production, and it is insulin that converts carbs into fat. Those who are overweight often become locked in a vicious circle in which the refined carbohydrates they eat mean they manufacture more insulin, which in turn increases the desire for more carbs. So cutting out refined carbohydrates is vital.

Clark has every patient’s blood tested for thyroid, cholesterol, insulin and all the other vital factors, then gives them a diet and lifestyle programme. Mine was simple: I had to cut out all refined carbohydrates (cakes, biscuits, bread, pasta, potatoes, rice), eat plenty of lean protein, vegetables (“this is not a low-carbohydrate diet,” he says, “it’s high in carbohydrates, but the unrefined ones mostly found in vegetables”), cut out saturated fats, go easy on the alcohol (a glass or two a day of red wine), and that’s it. It is very like the low-GI diet, fine-tuned to meet individual needs after studying the blood-test results. When I did it conscientiously I lost a steady 2lb a week, which is how Clark thinks it should be done: “It means you lose weight at a rate your skin can cope with. Those who starve themselves on a typical low-calorie diet lose body protein, which isn’t good.”

I went from 10st 3lb to 9st. My insulin levels fell by 49 per cent, triglycerides by 18 per cent and LDL (low-density lipoproteins) by 10, whilst the HDL (high-density lipoproteins, the “good” fats) were up by 10 per cent. But – and this is key – it really helped that I visited him every fortnight. He’d know in a flash if I’d misbehaved. As the hand reached for the odd croissant it would be stayed by the knowledge that the evidence would be spotted in the blood-test results. Clark is also relatively inexpensive (£195 for the initial consultation), and he manages to sort most people in three or four visits.

Then there’s the detox. I’ve tried that, too – though by mistake. I’ve never managed to detox on my own. It was always too daunting, requiring the discipline of an Olympic athlete, and yet the benefits seem to be universally acknowledged: glowing skin, brighter eyes, sprightlier spirit and, of course, weight loss. I’d heard about In:spa and was attracted to it because it sounded fun. In:spa’s USP is that it takes up temporary residence in a range of enchanting boutique hotels. I went to Charlotte Scott’s lovely finca, Trasierra, outside Seville (other destinations include Ibiza and Morocco). They bring their own cooks, dieticians, masseurs, yoga teachers and professional trainers.

What I hadn’t realised until I got there was that for the full six days there would be masses of exercise – dawn yoga (which I skipped), hikes, circuit training and massages – but absolutely no wheat, dairy, tea, coffee, alcohol or red meat. I learned that it was only the compulsory removal of these things that made it all – relatively – easy. I didn’t have a choice. So I had a week of delicious food, devoid of “nasties”, and I learned that starving the body is not what losing weight or being well is all about. There were compulsory snacks at 11am and 4pm (“If you go too long without eating,” the nutritionist told us, “your body thinks there’s a famine and starts hoarding fat”).

There were personal nutritional counselling sessions and, believe me, there were highly intelligent, high-earning women there who had not a clue about nutrition (one girl ate vast mounds of avocado under the impression that it was good for her – “which, in small quantities, it is”, said the nutritionist, “but vast amounts shouldn’t be eaten by those who need to lose weight”). I came back feeling a million dollars – bright of eye, perky of spirit and a couple of pounds lighter, which isn’t a lot, but it had introduced me to the novel notion that I didn’t die if I gave up tea, coffee and alcohol, and to the key sense that diet must be combined with exercise.

Next up was an experiment with the Ayurvedic way to health and a sleeker frame. This is India’s most ancient form of medicine, though it is also much more than that. Practitioners say it is a “science for life”, taking care of one’s mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. One friend who tried it lost so much weight that she had to move off it sharpish (and, sod’s law, she didn’t have much to lose). Part of the charm for me, it has to be said, was that trying it entailed going to India in the middle of a British winter. At The Leela hotel in Kerala, the sea glinted beautifully, palms swayed and flowers bloomed. But I was there for a serious purpose. At the Divya spa I filled out a detailed form with lots of intrusive personal questions (ie, “My sexual interest is variable, consider fantasy in life” and “I have opinions and like to share them” – award marks 0 to 3) but from this and close scrutiny of one’s physical type one’s doctor assesses one’s “dosha” (constitution) around which a diet is devised.

I was diagnosed as being a Pitta, with some lovely qualities, but a good share of disagreeable ones too. I was then given two full pages of information about what I was to eat and not eat. Above all, I was “to keep myself warm and toasty and avoid being chilled” (a doddle in Kerala, not so easy back home). But the best thing about The Leela (which, to be frank, in other respects doesn’t rank with Oberoi’s sumptuous palaces) is that one’s diet sheet is sent to the chef, who personally oversees it. The food was amongst the most delicious I’ve had in India, with an array of Indian specialities, from clear vegetable broths to steamed Basmati rice, vegetable kormas, yellow dahl, Aloo Gobis and heavenly fresh fruits. All this was accompanied by a full programme of Ayurvedic treatments which – be warned – entail being doused endlessly in oil until one feels like a marinaded kebab, then washed down with powerful showers.

In a week I lost 3.5lb, and I left with many good wishes, diet sheets and an array of pills with complicated instructions (some to be taken 30 minutes before food, others twice daily, others after breakfast or dinner). Now, I feel bad, and hope the good doctor isn’t reading this, but I didn’t keep it up. I don’t have a personal chef at home (sob) and the exigencies of the diet proved too much. So my conclusion is this: it works but you have to stick to it for longer than a week. If you’re serious, stay at least a fortnight.

Then there are the pukka spas which don’t just float petals in the bath and talk a lot of new-age hokum but actually sort out the nutritional and medical problems of highly stressed, often frantic people. I’d be amazed, I learned, at the number of people who simply burst into tears of sorrow or of rage. These spas are not cheap because employing proper medical staff, masseuses and therapists, providing the sort of light, exquisite food that their strict detox demands is highly labour-intensive. But if ever you felt seriously stressed, worried about your metabolism or nutrition, or about why you felt so tired or anxious, then Espace Henri Chenot is a really good place to be.

To start with you are wrapped in comfort, for it is based in a grand hotel in Merano, in Italy’s Alto Adige. At Espace Henri Chenot there is no messing about. Blood, urine, metabolism, heart-rates, energy levels, all are analysed. Every day involves a series of treatments from hydrotherapy to massages to sessions with doctors. The key aims are to detox, re-educate, de-stress, re-energise, cleanse the liver and put right any low or malfunctioning part of the body that their techniques can deal with. For six days there is no tea, coffee, alcohol, red meat, salt, saturated fats or refined carbohydrates, though like Prof Clark they’re keen on complex carbohydrates and I was given a little lecture that I must eat more pulses and brown rice. Every day starts with fresh fruit salad – except the day of the 12-hour fast when the famous white (laxative) powder is administered and when only herbal tea is allowed. Lunches and dinners feature salads, fabulous vegetable soups and complex carbohydrates (at lunch).

It is the professional care that makes this place so special. It was clear to me from all the chit-chat that people (prime ministers, film stars, grand Italian families such as the Missonis, lots of customers from the new ’stans) come year after year to be detoxed and revitalised, to be, if you like, recentred. Here I lost over 4lb, more than I’ve ever lost in five days (except when I got E.coli in Malawi and lost 8lb in four days). And I learned a lot about nutrition. I came away with a plan of action and a dossier of all the lab tests as well as advice as to what I should and shouldn’t do (“your liver is tired, and what your body requires is lots of exercise”) as well as a glorious cookery book by Dominique Chenot which made me wish I had time to make all those fantastic soups and raviolis of bulghar wheat that made the detox seem almost pleasurable. Go with your best friends, have a ball, and come back glowing and several kilos lighter. It works, and it’s educational and inspiring at the same time.

I’ve not finished yet. There are still a few places to try (the Viva Mayr Clinic, Austria, and Chiva-Som, Thailand, are high on the list) but here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way. If you give something up for long enough you really don’t want it any more. What are potatoes? I scarcely remember what they taste like. Do I miss them? Never. I haven’t tried it on alcohol or chocolate yet but you never know. I also learned that doing it on one’s own is tough. That’s why going away somewhere helps. What most of us need is company, encouragement, guidance and the occasional shaking of the stick. It’s why Weight Watchers is such a success. It deserves a medal for, at £5.50 a meeting, it’s dead cheap (so brilliantly democratic) and if you stick to it, it works.

An annual trip to one of the serious spas, such as Espace Henri Chenot, for those who can afford it, is a brilliant way of having an annual cleanout, for reinforcing all the principles they teach. I’ve also learned that for people like me, who Espace Henri Chenot acknowledged had more of a struggle than most, there’s no end to the matter. Life-long vigilance is what it’ll take if those nippy little suits are going to get their fair share of outings.

See also

Diets