When a friend asked if I’d like to accompany her to Buchinger Wilhelmi, the famous fasting clinic just outside Zurich, my immediate response was no. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of dropping a few pounds — who doesn’t? More that, I’m beginning to wonder if fasting at one of these fancy detox places doesn’t ultimately have the opposite effect.
I cite as an example the time I spent a week at some such clinic in Switzerland, 250 calories a day, toilets with “viewing” platforms, colonics galore, and yes, felt absolutely marvellous on day seven. So marvellous, in fact, that in the lounge before getting on the plane to come home, I necked two big bowls of nuts and three quarters of a bottle of wine. That’s a pattern for me, I’m afraid. Punishment/reward; detox/retox; black/white and all. But then without that black and white thinking where food comes in, what would be the point of the detox clinic? If you need any proof that business is not about solving problems or satisfying needs permanently, just look at the in built-in obsolescence of an iPhone.
For thousands of years, humans have therapeutically fasted to achieve a oneness with nature. Losing a couple of pounds has become the bonus not the goal
On the other hand, Buchinger sounds different. I keep hearing folk who come back year after year after year, bleating about it in a way that people don’t after coming back from anywhere else.
My boyfriend, for example. Like me, he’s been to a spa or two in his life, but he came back from Buchinger almost a different person. It wasn’t just the weight, it was the sparkle in his eyes, the renewed zest for life, the energy, the optimism (that lasted well after he put back on all the weight lost, too).
See, I want some of that. Food is always going to mean too much for me . Especially since I stopped drinking alcohol and doing other things. Ideally, what I’m going for now is to spend less time thinking about the way I look to other people, and more about the world around me; to take more delight out of experience, to be more mindful and present as I go about my day. Perhaps part of the reason I don’t spring out of bed like a lamb or revel in nature is that I’m not living in the present and this applies more than anything to food, worrying about what I already ate, planning on what I’m going to eat next and so on. In essence, I want to press the reset button (the one that stops focusing on the past or the future, the one that allows us to be totally immersed in what we are doing right now, the way we did as children). For thousands of years, humans have therapeutically fasted to achieve this oneness with nature I’m trying to describe here. Losing a couple of pounds therefore, has become the bonus not the goal.
And so it is I arrive with my friend — it’s an hour and a bit from Zurich airport — and check in to my room, an airy single overlooking the shores of Lake Constance and the cobble-stoned market town of Uberlingen. Every so often, a gigantic zeppelin from the local munitions plant will float across the horizon. It’s all rather surreal.
Built in 1953, Buchinger is the brainchild of Dr Otto Buchinger, a medical doctor and philosophy guru, his stunningly beautiful daughter Maria, aka the ‘Grande Dame’ of fasting, and Maria’s husband Helmut Wilhelmi. It is now run by Otto’s grandson Raimund and his physician wife Francoise, a daunting couple who have built the clinic (a branch of which existed in Marbella) to be a world leader in therapeutic fasting.
The clientele? Mega high net worth individuals from over the world — post-Ramadan, after all those night feasts is a particularly busy time — and then there are the older German folk, spry, super fit types who’ve been coming here for years and regard a stint of fasting at Buchinger as a treat or holiday as opposed to penance for gluttony. Indeed, the medic I’ve been assigned for my stay, Dr Lischke, a skinny 50-something six foot blonde who has never had to worry about her weight swears by the Buchinger method. I’m disappointed, therefore when she tells me I will not be able to fast; you have to be here for a minimum stay of 10 days to do that. What she will put me on, though, for the five days I am here is the 800 calorie programme . There is a 1,200 programme too, or indeed any amount of calories you so desire.
But then Buchinger isn’t necessarily all about fasting. Yes, the super HNWI clientele is mostly there just for that, but there is also a sliver of people who go there with no intention of fasting. Mothers who have just given birth, for example. Stressed execs who want to be more mindful when eating. And then there’s that swathe of people who simply want to drop a couple of pounds and panic at the idea of fasting.
I suddenly found myself, for the first time, actually getting the point of meditation
Understandably, fasters and non-fasters have separate rooms in which to eat. I’m in the restaurant part (where fasters go to prepare or ‘refeed’ after 10 days of soup only, and breakfast is a delicious bowl of ‘Budwig cream’, a muesli-like mixture of quark, flaxseed oil, nuts and seeds; a piece of Ryvita and cream cheese-y spread decorated with an edible nasturtium. Lunch and dinner can be anything from mushroom strudel, a large salad and apricot sorbet to a cashew lasagne and vegetable piccata followed by a small medallion of, get this, fruit crumble. I even get an afternoon snack in my room of nuts, olives or desiccated coconut balls. How the resident chef manages to keep it to 800 calories is a miracle (although of course it is not, because he gives practical demonstrations which I’d urge you to attend, even though it might seem like torture when you are hard core fasting).
A big part of Buchinger is the morning walk which starts at – gulp – 6am in the summer (the time difference from the UK is NOT on our side). I’m ashamed to say I only did day one, because getting up that early makes the day seem awfully long. Besides which there is a spectacular outdoor pool, heated to just the right temperature, a well-equipped gym (with personal trainers available) and yoga for both beginners and advanced.
It’s the mind-body programmes offered, though, along with the Budwig cream, which make Buchinger stand out from the rest. Dr Lischke’s husband gives us a class on something called ‘autogenic training’. Essentially this means putting yourself into a meditative trance without any guidance, which sounds straightforward enough, but in this 30 minutes I suddenly found myself, for the first time, actually getting the point of meditation . That is, a) that change only happens in the present moment. And b) realising you are off on another train of thought IS meditating. Hurrah! I was doing it right all along!
Another first-time experience was a sound massage with Tibetan singing bowls with Mr Lutz, where bowls (which he strikes with a gong) are placed on various chakras on the body, the vibrations of which generate a special energy to help anything from depression to menstrual cramps. Look, who knows whether this stuff works, but the peace I felt during and after was pretty profound.
Lutz and his wife also do group meditations. These are much to be recommended although, I cannot tell a lie, a woman next to me snored so loudly, it was hard to concentrate. Later when I tell Lutz, he apologises profusely. Usually, if he or his wife hear anyone snoring, one of them will come around and gently rap the soles of his or her feet.
On my last day, I find myself wishing I were staying on with my friend who’s doing the full-on 10 day fast. This is unusual for me, because usually I’m counting the days down like a prisoner. I will miss our nightly sessions with Netflix (note: download a couple of box-sets beforehand, preferably that don’t pivot too much around food. They recommend digitally detoxing , but if supper is at 6pm or indeed you are fasting, nights can be long). I will miss that massive sparkling pool. I will miss the deliciousness of each meal after eating nothing in between (mini fasting, in my eyes) and the quality time I got to spend with my friend, positively egging each other on, acting, in a way, like life coaches for each other.
I’m also nervous about going back into the ‘front country’. It’s easy to meditate and be mindful and present in the abstract, with no distractions. In real life, it’s going to be more of an uphill struggle. For me, eating badly is totally bound up in not being present and being held hostage to that mindset of, “I’ve screwed up today, so I might as well go for it and start again tomorrow”. Meditation, ergo, could be crucial, to eating sensibly.
So we’ll see. In the interim, I lost 2.8 kilos in just five days. It’s unlikely I’ll be where I am in six months time. But even if I am, Buchinger, I’ll be back. Really, it doesn’t get better than this.
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Fasting programmes at Buchinger Wilhelmi start at £2,150 for 10 days, with 14, 21 and 28 day packages available.
3 and 7 day non-fasting packages and day rates are also available.
To book: www.buchinger-wilhelmi.com / +49 7551 8070