Right now, there are women exhausted by hunger, their heads pounding, barely able to remember the last time they enjoyed a decent meal.
Some are forced to walk miles in sweltering heat, fuelled by nothing more than a handful of nuts.
They are the lucky ones. Others are starved, not just of food and creature comforts, but of any activities that might make the days pass faster.
Wellness program: ‘Starvation vacations’ are costly retreats where a main attraction is the fact food won’t be readily available
But before you reach for your credit card to donate £10 to these poor souls, we should make it clear these women are not victims. They are willing participants in the trend for ‘starvation vacations’ — costly retreats where a main attraction is the fact food won’t be readily available.
‘Starvation vacation’ is certainly not the label used by the exclusive resorts offering this service. They prefer detox retreat, ‘results-oriented wellness programme’ or ‘opportunity for total rejuvenation’. ‘It’s not about losing weight,’ insists the PR for a three-day break where guests are invited to lounge in five-star luxury and consume nothing but a few pints of a drink made from water, lemon juice, natural tree syrup and cayenne pepper.
Beyonce lost 20lb in a fortnight on this bizarre cocktail, but the people behind the Lemon Detox (a branded version peddled by Von Essen hotels to create this somewhat unappetising mini-break) say it is for people who want to cleanse their body — weight loss is a byproduct.
But there’s no denying that most who sign up for a spell of enforced hunger wouldn’t give a flying wheatgrass smoothie about their toxins if they stagger home at the end of it all weighing the same as when they went in.
Julia Perowne, a 29-year-old PR director from London, has endured several starvation vacations.
‘I was drawn by the promise of weight loss — I wanted to go somewhere extreme to kick-start my diet,’ she says. ‘In my industry, there are lots of lunches with clients. I’d put on weight and was unhappy with my size.
‘So I thought: “Let’s go somewhere where there’s no temptation. A hardcore spa.” I wanted people to say: “Oh my God, what a dramatic transformation!” ’
The famously austere Mayr Clinic in Austria, where Julia spent three summer holidays, claims to cure digestive problems, weight management, cravings, the lot.
Celebrity endorsements: Beyonce and Sarah Ferguson have both lost weight by drastically reducing what they eat with bizarre cocktails or at a ‘detox retreat’
The regime, ‘enjoyed’ by the likes of Sarah Ferguson, is intended to give the digestive system a break. They do feed you, but only stale bread (chewed to a thin pulp before swallowing), broths and herbal infusions.
‘You get up at 7am, drink Epsom salts and exercise for an hour. Then they give you tea or bouillon broth and bread for breakfast,’ says Julia.
‘We just sat in silence, chewing every mouthful 50 times to break down the food to its most easily digestible form.
‘You spend the rest of the morning exercising or having cleansing treatments such as hot and cold baths or a hot hay compress on your liver.
‘Then it’s broth or tea for lunch and a bit more bread with protein paste made from blitzed turkey or ham, or goat’s milk yogurt.
‘They have a lovely terrace overlooking the lake where you can sunbathe. I don’t know how else you’d pass the hours.
‘Dinner is at 6.30pm — tea, a tiny bit of bread and paste. There’s so little to do that everyone’s in bed by 9pm.’
Though it sounds bleak, Julia found it preferable to Moinhos Velhos, a juice-fasting mountain retreat in Portugal (where the experienced faster can opt for water or air instead).
‘There was a lot of ‘‘Omm-ing’’ and blessings of glasses of juice,’ says Julia. ‘It wasn’t very me.
‘I decided to go to the Mayr because I liked the philosophy: we eat too much, too late at night and too quickly.
Detox retreat: The Mayr Clinic’s philosophy is that we eat too much, too late at night and too quickly
‘On my first visit, I lost 15lb in three weeks. For months afterwards I felt fabulous.
‘Don’t get me wrong — it was absolutely no fun. There’s nothing to do. After a couple of days you’re so tired and emotional you go to bed early. But the results are worth it.’
In the hills of California, at The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu, the trendiest wellness retreat, guests are fed a varied menu prepared by a renowned chef, but restricted to 1,500 calories a day.
This has to sustain them through two yoga sessions, a 12-mile morning mountain hike and an afternoon of exercise.
One recent visitor to this beautiful but brutal bootcamp said several fellow guests spent the first hike of the week suffering from hypoglycaemia — a condition caused by low blood sugar.
‘Some vomited,’ she says. ‘When under extreme stress and low in blood sugar, the body shuts down unnecessary metabolic processes, such as hearing and digestion, to keep the heart pumping.’
Programme director Marc Alabanza describes the Ranch’s guests as ‘alphas’.
‘Our clientele are highly intelligent and driven people who want tangible results,’ he says.
‘Though we don’t talk in terms of weight loss, we do weigh and measure them and put them through physical tests at the start and end of the week. The inches shrink away.’
The regime makes sense when you’re there, but you can’t live like that when you’re running around all day in a busy job.
Nicky Kinnaird, 46, founder of beauty retailer Space NK, is a veteran of hard-core holidays. She was drawn to the ranch because of the activities rather than the food. In fact, she considered the portions generous for a wellness retreat.
‘My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I love the challenge — the sense of escape,’ she says. ‘Of course, on day two or three, you’re begging for time on a sun lounger, doing nothing, eating whatever you like. But you get through it.’
And the results? ‘Everyone loses 10lb to 12lb. You end up in great shape, but if weight loss is your only goal, you wouldn’t survive.’
Great skin, mental clarity and glossy hair — the other extolled benefits of detoxing — are part of the reason why a growing number of women are signing up for starvation vacations.
But Julia Perowne doubts she’ll go on such a holiday again.
‘The regime makes sense when you’re there, but you can’t live like that when you’re running around all day in a busy job,’ she says.
‘I found it impossible to maintain and started to feel guilty about eating dinner or enjoying a few drinks with friends. It became a barrier to normal life.’
But returning to normal eating habits resulted in demoralising weight gain for Julia.
Diet and movement specialist Joanna Hall says Julia’s experience is natural.
‘There is evidence to suggest a short, sharp detox at the beginning of a health kick can have some benefit in breaking bad habits,’ she says.
‘But studies have proven that extreme approaches don’t work in the long run. So-called starvation vacations reinforce the message that people who want to lose weight and live more healthily are incapable of doing something about it themselves.
‘They lock themselves away from normal life, as if that’s the only way that better health and weight loss can be achieved. It’s dangerously disempowering.
‘Before you book something like this, you need to ask yourself: “Do I want to look good and feel great in three days, three weeks, three years or three decades?”