Even though I’ve written about spas for many years, somehow I have managed to avoid doing a juice fast, or “detox” (a very popular activity in certain pampering quarters). My idea of detoxing – which I had always believed to be just another way of saying “to sweat” – was to order a veggie burger and a sweet potato fries instead of greasier ones. When I would make more serious attempts at fasting, I usually couldn’t get past dinner. In fact, I enjoy food so much that I once followed a lovely apricot pastry stashed in a supermarket cart much the same way a teenage boy might turn his head at a shapely redhead.
I’m what the women’s magazines call an “emotional eater,” that is, I use food to comfort myself, planning much of my day around it. It wasn’t until I tried a three-day juicing fast this spring at Copperhood Inn and Spa in Shandaken, NY, about 20 miles northwest of Woodstock, that I confronted my food impulses (or what some might call addictions).
Copperhood is situated on a lovely patch of land at the base of the Catskill Mountains, a babbling brook rushing past most of the rooms, which are neutral, elegant and sedate. Not a bad place to be hungry. Plus, I was coming down with a horrendous head cold, which the owner, Elizabeth Winograd, assured me would be the perfect time to “cleanse.”
Winograd has been running the place for over 20 years and is very passionate about the joys and benefits of juice fasts. “When you’re not eating, you’re putting your body in an anabolic state, similar to when you’re sleeping,” she says. “It has a chance to catch up and remove more toxins and rebuild cells. And the juices provide it with nutrients that go directly into the bloodstream.”
She also points out that cultures and religions all over the world have had fasting rituals for centuries, especially between the seasons. “A lot of this is an instinctive practice to cleanse the body,” she says.
Some research points to the benefits of short-term fasting to help lower cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. But more needs to be done and most medical experts discourage it on a long-term basis. After three days, many nutritionists believe that the body needs amino acids for the liver to continue the detoxing process.
Most amino acids are found in protein, but they are also in some vegetables, like cabbage and spinach – two ingredients that are used in the amazing juices whipped up three times a day at Copperhood. Like those children’s recipes where the good-for-you stuff is hidden, the mouth-watering juice concoctions here mask the bitter and brutal doses of health (dandelions and garlic) with vitamin-rich sweets, like pineapple, watermelon and cranberries.
The first night of my “cleanse” I listened to my stomach grumble and repeated a mantra to myself: “My body is resting and healing.” It gurgled back at me. The next morning a sparkling glass of blended oranges, apples and carrots washed down a green shot of wheatgrass juice. I couldn’t tell if it was my already-lowered immune system or hunger, but I was definitely not up to working out in the gym, or going on a mountain hike. Some gentle yoga, a meditation class and a brief walk in the woods was the perfect regimen. By dinner, the juicers, all of whom were seated at the same table, pined for the meal at the next table.
“Could never do what you guys are doing,” said Eddie, one of the few guests actually chewing on the premises. The rest of us just salivated over his grilled shrimp and zucchini, marinated in lemon and olive oil. Eddie, a retired ad executive in his 70s, had taken this spa opportunity to give up smoking. He was detoxing the way I used to – by trying to eat healthy.
After we watched Eddie eat, I slowly sipped some fresh beet, celery, rutabaga and cranberry juice (unlike at some spas, the drinks are served within minutes of being made). A few of us started nibbling the toasted, seasoned sesame seeds, an Indian condiment called gomasio, casually perched on the table with various hot sauces and other spices. Pouring it into our palms, we munched the seeds as if we were eating popcorn. I then drank the one thing we were allowed copious amounts: “the broth,” a potassium-rich soup of boiled carrots, celery, potatoes, spinach, garlic, jalapeno pepper and parsley, with a dash of cumin, and chanted to myself again, “My body is resting and healing.” (This broth was becoming the equivalent of gruel.)
I spent most of the next day clasping the sheets over my head, in bed, barely able to breathe through my stuffed nose. Between the juice and broth, I sat in the steam room, my new nirvana, sweat running down my skin, aware that I was finally getting the full detox experience. In addition to sweating, massages are another excellent accompaniment to all this fasting. First, they’re supposed to stimulate the lymph system, the conduit for removing toxins. Second, they can take your mind off not eating. (The spa’s weekly package only includes one massage, but one or two more would be recommended.)
By the third day, some of the hungry guests were about to stage a revolt and raid the kitchen. Elizabeth was adamant that they try to stick with their “commitment.” Some of us were starting to suspect this food deprivation was a cost-saving measure. Copperhood has a nice, upscale ambiance, but not the service to match. The small staff was friendly and attentive, but over-taxed, so don’t expect a “whatever-you-need, we-make-it-happen” customer service ethos.
It is a shame they are so sparse about doling out their cuisine because it is some of the best –exquisitely-prepared and full of flavor, (and not just because I was REALLY hungry). Salad, grilled vegetables and raw sushi made with avocado and diced jicama instead of rice were my first chewable fare, the perfect segue back to solids. It’s not a good idea to binge after fasting, and after 72 hours of working toward a pristine system, you want to be careful what you introduce back into it. A place like Copperhood, with its fresh vegetables, fish and poultry, is the perfect place to come off a fast.
Most of the fasters lost four to six pounds in three days – a few who had gone longer, didn’t lose too much more. I lost five pounds. But most experts rightly warn not to read too much into that kind of weight loss, for much is water and, of course, in the outside world, it may slowly creep (or rush) back on. It helps that doing something like this can “cleanse” the body as well as the mind.
After three days of not being able to give in to my cravings, I flexed my willpower muscle. Two days later when I saw a luscious cake with strawberry icing in a bakery window, I had no urge to take a detour. I reintroduced the concept of deferred gratification. “Some other time,” I told myself. “Still resting and cleansing.”