Extreme Diets

My Week At An Austrian Fat Camp

Unpleasantly pudgy? Allergic to exercise? Give yourself over to Austria’s elite spas. Owen Matthews reports on the pleasures of vegetable broth and colonic irrigation.

Ecce homo: Behold the man. He is talented, happy and prosperous. He is admired by his fellows; pretty girls at parties laugh at his jokes. In his own mind he is at the zenith of his life, a man in full.

And yet the mirror shows a man a little over-filled. In shop windows he catches sight of a portly middle-aged gentleman whom he seems to recognize—this fatty looks strangely like himself, only larger. Some hung-over mornings he looks into the mirror and finds a pudgy Nosferatu looking back at him. Finally, he buys a set of electronic scales and discovers the 115-kilo truth. The Internet tells him that fat will kill more surely than booze or even smoking. The time has come to take urgent action.

But what to do? Dieting is depressing. Vigorous exercise is sweaty and undignified. Abstinence is not his style. He wants maximum gain (or rather loss) for minimum pain.

Then the truth dawns: Russians and Central Europeans cracked the problem centuries ago. Throw some money at it. Put yourself in the hands of professionals. Check into a sanatorium. A Russian friend explained:

“You go to a clinic. You pay them money, you relax and do nothing and two weeks later you come out thin.”

And is it expensive? “Of course,” he said. “Reassuringly expensive.”

And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in a comfortable teak chair on a perfectly-manicured lawn, listening to the whispering of reeds and the lapping of lake water. Going for a slimming cure may sound Proustian, hypochondriac and mittel-european—but at first glance at least it seemed quite bearable. Dotted around the garden were my fellow inmates, or patients, most wearing the clinic’s toweling bathrobe. Some wandered in a genial trance wearing the faraway, slightly shell-shocked look of the recently colonically irrigated. The clock of the nearby medieval church struck the hours. Ducks quacked. Paperback pages turned and playlists shuffled. Stomachs rumbled.

I was at the Mayr Clinic on Lake Worth in Austria—or rather, the Viva Mayr, since there are in fact two Mayr Clincs on Lake Worth, one posher and more luxurious, the other cheaper and more rigorous. Guess which one I chose.

As for the Mayr diet itself—it’s primarily based on eating less. Amazing. Six hundred calories a day, in the form of an egg at breakfast, tiny cups of vegetable soup for lunch, stale spelt bread and vegetable broth at dinner. The pounds just tumble off.

Diets seem to have a curious appeal to certain types of pedants and loonies who get all swivel-eyed about the rival merits of various regimens. Indeed the only thing more boring than other people’s children is other peoples’ diets. But in reality all diets are basically the same—deprive the body of nutrients and it will begin to consume itself.

The unique selling point, or twist, of the Meyer doctrine is rather appealingly simple: not only does one eat too much in the course of everyday life, but one also eats all sorts of nasty umska which the body is unable to digest and ends up either fermenting or (sorry) putrefying in one’s gut.

So the Meyer cure basically consists of eating very little (did I mention that?) while at the same time drinking various purgatives to clean out one’s bowels. This process can be mechanically assisted by deep belly massages and, yes, colonic irrigation. You should be aware that for some reason this is the only thing anyone seems to be interested in when one mentions the words “Austrian” and “clinic” in the same sentence—but maybe that’s just a British thing.

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So: I can report that the procedure was actually quite pleasant. For one, it’s the prettiest of the nurses who do the colonics—not sure why this is. You might think it’s a challenge to have a jolly conversation with a young woman who is pushing a eight inches of plastic tubing up your fundament. Challenging —yes, but not impossible. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” is a great icebreaker. The water is hot and cold, administered at various pressures, and the effect is actually rather relaxing. With enemas like these, who needs friends?

Viva Mayr’s founder is Dr Harald Stossier, a terrifyingly fit, perfectly-postured walking advertisement for the dietary methods of the guru, Franz-Xaver Mayr (who died in 1965 at the age of 90). With his sweet breath, clean skin, and distinctly lupine grin, Stossier reassures you that though you may feel grubby and fallen from grace, a fortnight’s cleansing—including gallons of herbal tea and nightly doses of laxative Epsom Salts—and you will be renewed.

Being deprived of food is an odd experience. Strange to say, one doesn’t feel hunger so much as a psychological gap in the fabric of one’s life. We are so unused to any kind of deprivation—indeed our civilization is geared towards eliminating it from our lives—that it comes as an utter shock to experience it. Millions have strived and dreamed and suffered for us to be this free from want, and of course to be this fat.

The first day or so everyone feels terrible—the toxins leaving the body, according to Stossier. Then I began to feel exhilarated and slightly euphoric. Around day six the cravings began to kick in. I felt the wholly novel sensation of envying a person on the next table who was tucking into a single boiled potato (every Mayr patient is prescribed a different diet according to various food intolerances and body size—I was on one of the strictest). I had never craved a carrot before, or fantasized about raiding an apple tree in a nearby garden.

As one might imagine, Mayr is hardest at dusk, when ancient natural body rhythms tell you it is time for a cocktail and your ears are strained to the frequency of a popping cork. The evenings are very long and very sad and filled with old episodes of Mad Men. The British guests, perhaps united by a folk memory of Colditz, swapped advice on how to game the system in hushed whispers. The cooking class was a favorite because one gets to eat the various wholesome goat-milk curd pastes and sautéed vegetables at the end of the lesson. On one exhilarating day I stole away on the little steam-powered ferry that plies up and down Lake Worth and ate a chicken salad with a half-bottle of Riesling in the nearby Victorian resort of Velden. The deliciousness of the meal and headiness of the wine are almost indescribable.

On my return I hung my head in shame—only to hear the confessions of some Russian guests who had driven to Klagenfurt to eat McDonalds, which eased my guilt. The next day I took a long hike through the woods—once frequented by Gustaf Mahler, who had a cabin on one of the nearby hillsides—and visited the inmates of the other Mayr place, FX Mayr. A similar monastic silence reigned, and the atmosphere was also of high seriousness and hygiene. The main difference seems to be one of style—FX is more Austrian, gemutlich and inn-like, while Viva is glass-and-steel and sternly modernist. Conditions at the neighboring camp—back to Colditz again—are the subject of lively dinner-table speculation at both FX and Viva. The inmates of FX consider Viva to be effete, soft and unserious. Viva, for their part, consider FXers to be poor and fanatical.

After 10 days your resolve starts to crack completely. The brain doesn’t seem to work, and long walks leave you weak as a puppy and craving gummy bears. But they also put you on slightly more nourishing food: grilled chicken, courgette puree, and other wild indulgences which keep you going. Six kilos have gone—more, thanks to the flushing of the umska from inside, the belly has deflated like a punctured tyre and suddenly my trousers have ten centimeters of slack. And you do feel wonderful, purged, remade, new.

Two weeks in the world of wholesome niceness also leaves you undefended and strangely serene and a bit childlike. The brain has become naked and vulnerable as an open eye. The busy hostile world outside is mystifying and a little unreal.

Afterwards how does it stick? Amazingly, it does. Some of the weight creeps back on, of course, but suddenly a large salad seems impossibly filling and more than a mouthful of dessert impossibly rich. But most importantly the old Nosferatu who used to lurk in the mirror with hooded, bloodshot eyes and saggy 500-year-old skin is gone. And you now know who to call if he ever returns.