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Luxury spa teaches that losing weight is possible- one chew at a time

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    Viva Mayr is on the banks of Lake Wörthersee, making for gorgeous sunsets. (Nadine Jolie)

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     (VIVA - Center for Modern Mayr Medicine)

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    Disgusting but effective, epsom salts are swallowed every morning at Viva to help encourage cleansing and digestion. (Nadine Jolie)

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     (VIVA - Center for Modern Mayr Medicine)

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    A lake view from one of the Viva Mayr rooms. (Nadine Jolie)

Remember what your mother always used to say?  "Chew your food!"  Turns out she was right.

If you're trying to lose weight, this simple rule of chewing your food 40 times before you swallow not only works, but has some significant science behind it and a luxury resort built up around it.

It sounds too good to be true. And yet, when I spent a week at the picturesque Viva Mayr med-spa clinic in Maria Wörth, Austria, I left several pounds lighter and also with an appreciation for Viva’s core principle: improve digestion and improve your life.

Mayr devotees believe that disease starts in the gut, with ailments ranging from eczema to certain cancers caused by a backlog of toxins. Digest better, the theory goes, and you’ll reduce intestinal inflammation and make your body more alkaline; not only will you lose weight, but you’ll experience a bevy of other benefits, including healthier organs, brighter skin, and reduced disease such as obesity and diabetes.

While the Mayr Cure has been popular in Austria since its inception by Dr. Franz Mayr at the turn of last century, Viva Mayr’s myriad five-star pleasures make it the most enjoyable place to detox through the initial shock. Viva’s guests come from all walks of life—during my stay, guests included European CEOs, an oil billionaire from Qatar and his wife and several London businessmen, but also 20something gal-pals from Hong Kong, a couple from New York and many unassuming individuals.

Located on the banks of Lake Wörthersee, a verdant corner of northern Austria recalling The Sound of Music with its weeping willows and jagged Alpine mountain views, Viva Mayr is Zen and pristine: half medical clinic, half luxury spa. Viva boasts numerous doctors, a full spa, a beauty salon, a gourmet restaurant, and private docks for sunning and swimming while immersing yourself in the cure.

It’s the kind of place where guests wander around in robes and slippers.  Bikes are available for riding to the next town, and weekly hikes in nearby Italy and Slovenia are led by the staff. Viva’s spa is particularly expansive, featuring numerous steam rooms, saunas, color and heat therapy rooms and a gorgeous indoor pool overlooking the lake—but unlike the nearby pampering palace Schlosshotel Velden, the daily treatments guests receive at Viva all have one goal in mind: to stimulate digestion.

Austrian Austerity

Weight-conscious people are used to gimmicky diets: grapefruit, cayenne pepper, kale smoothies—and at first glance, the Mayr Cure certainly qualifies. Before visiting the clinic, I pored through material online, my eyes widening with each click. “We’re expected to chew how many times? That’s all for dinner? You drink what every morning?!” Visiting Viva in person, however, was revolutionary.

Under the watchful care of Dr. Nadia Aichbichler, my food intolerances were tested; my abdomen was massaged to stimulate digestion; daily Epsom salts were ingested to promote—ahem—cleansing; and my lifestyle habits were discussed to find long-term, sustainable solutions. As a beauty and travel-writer, wine plays a significant role in both my social and work life, so I was relieved to discover that, after the initial weeklong Mayr detox, wine is allowed. Phew!

Back home a month later, when I’d lost and easily kept off 15 pounds thanks to the simple diet modifications I learned at Viva, I forever joined its legion of devotees. With the benefit of hindsight, I can genuinely say that my week at the Viva clinic changed my life. Get The Viva Mayr Diet by Dr. Harald Stossier and Helena Frith Powell and mimic your own Viva experience at home with these steps:

Viva’s Core Principles

Chew 40 times:
Just like your grandmother always told you, it’s important to slow down while eating: not only will you digest better but you’ll get fuller faster and, eventually, start eating less. 40 full chews is darn near impossible at first bite. But full and proper chewing is so important to the Mayr Cure that, upon arrival, you’re booked in for “chewing training”: a half-hour session with spelt bread so dense that it takes a full minute to work down each mouthful. “The Mayr diet is eat slowly, chew well and take time for your food,” says Viva’s founder and director Dr. Harald Stossier. “You will automatically eat less if you chew well.”

After a lifetime of wolfing down my food, on Day 1 it’s nearly impossible for me to last more than 15 chews. But by the last day of my program, my fellow diners were marveling at my slowness and asking for tips. I repeated Dr. Stossier’s advice: think of chewing as a meditation. I think thin, therefore I am.

No water immediately before, after or during meals:
The importance of water is drilled into our collective heads, so following the Mayr Cure’s directive to abstain from water while eating—as well as 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after meals—is difficult but important. “If you drink a lot of water with your meals, you dilute the saliva,” says Dr. Stossier, explaining that this hinders the all-important digestive process.

I imagined this would extend to alcohol, too, so was surprised when Dr. Stossier explained that, because your body needs to process the alcohol, it’s fair game. “Alcohol isn’t like water: it’s liquid food. Your body needs to process it, so if you like to drink a glass of wine or a beer with your meal, enjoy it.” Why, thank you, Dr. Stossier; I believe I will.

No raw after 4pm:
According to Dr. Stossier, your body’s digestive system is raring to go in the morning…but by evening, the processes slow down. Raw foods are harder to digest, and when your system is sluggish, the foods will putrify in your intestines, becoming toxic.

“Our energy is not the same in the evening,” says Dr. Stossier. “You need energy to digest all that food, otherwise it creates fermentation and putrification.” While the Viva Mayr diet stresses vegetables and healthy, hormone-free meats, it’s better, says Dr. Stossier, to have a few bites of a gourmet hamburger at dinner than a late, large salad. Mind officially blown.

Eat large breakfasts, small dinners:
The maxim that Dr. Stossier is fond of repeating is “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper.” It takes some mental shifting to make breakfast my biggest meal of the day: despite hearing for years that it’s important, in the past I’ve been a strictly-coffee-til-noon girl. No longer. In Viva’s lakefront dining hall, my breakfasts are indeed royal: smoked salmon, avocado, soft boiled eggs and spelt bread dipped in linseed oil.

Lunch is thankfully normal: a sandwich, a salad, or a piece of fish with a small side of brown rice. But dinner? Oh, boy. This is where things get tricky. For the first week at Viva, as your body cleanses, you’re restricted to a cup of soup, a few mini boiled potatoes (or the ubiquitous spelt bread), and herbal tea. It seems Draconian, but I also discover that it sets up a deliciously vicious cycle: while I go to bed hungry the first few nights, it means that I overload on breakfast. After a few days, I’m barely hungry at dinner time and—what do you know?!—a small cup of soup with a little of that surprisingly-addictive spelt bread suffices.

“Our goal is you should be satisfied, you should enjoy it, and it’s important to realize that the eating habit has more influence than the amount itself,” says Dr. Stossier. “Most of our clients come back once a year for a tune up, because they realize that the system works.”

Count me in, Viva. I’ll be returning soon.