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Massage Today
March, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 03

The Second Element: Nourishment

By Robin Zill, LMT

The 10 Elements of the Spa Experience are designed to teach the consumer and professional about the integrated nature of the spa experience. This is the second article in a 12-part series and focuses on the second of the 10 elements: Nourishment.

The 10-Element Circle is available for viewing on line at

It is no secret that optimal nutrition enhances health and vitality. But what is good nutrition, especially in today's fast-paced and chaotic society? Is good nutrition simple and pure, high-tech and advanced, or a little of both? The process of discovering what diet or nutrition program is right for you raises numerous questions, and for good reason.

It appears that Americans choose fast foods over everything else. In his book Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser makes the case that what we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40,000 years. Americans spent $110 billion on fast food in 2000, up from six billion in 1970. We spent more in 2000 on fast food than we did on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. If we are what we eat, we have a lot to reflect upon and change.

Perhaps this is why the spa industry has also experienced tremendous growth. The spa experience can be an invaluable tool in expanding awareness and health through food and nourishment. This second element of the spa experience, nourishment, offers the spa-goer and the spa professional a framework to integrate nutritional choices into today's lifestyle. It includes foods, herbals, supplements and medicine; everything we consciously put into our bodies.

Natural food, water treatments, and exercise have always been at the center of the spa experience. According to spa historian Dr. Jonathan De Vierville, a new interest in nutrition, water and exercise emerged in the 1920s, in part to help war veterans recover from the rigors of World War I. Escaping from Romania just before Hitler's takeover, the Szekely family became pioneers of the spa industry in this tumultuous time. They started one of the first spa health retreats in America.

"Our principal asset was a simple faith in the values of living in harmony with nature," says Deborah Szekely. Opened in 1940, the Essene School of Life, now Rancho La Puerta in Escondido, California, is one of the most famous destination spas in the world. Originally committed to a vegetarian philosophy and a grape juice diet, the Szekelys believed that healthy food came from healthy soil. Although the price tag has changed since then, from $17.50 a week and "bring your own tent" to a few thousand dollars weekly and required reservations months ahead, the Szekelys' philosophy has remained intact. They still seek to provide a healthy retreat with a focus on integrated living, including an emersion experience with natural and organic foods.

This time period also saw the beginnings of the American Medical Society (AMA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This represented a big social change, affecting citizens on a personal level. Although it may have escaped the average citizen's conscious attention, the individual no longer controlled what went on the table. As the 20th century advanced, technology and regulations advanced at an exponential speed, and the general population embraced and admired these advancements in the name of progress.

Sound familiar? Gradually, natural and pure foods (and simple health remedies) were devalued. This unconscious cultural withdrawal from nature had many serious consequences, which we will discuss in future articles, but certainly people became more and more removed from the food they ate. From the beginning, the spa industry responded to these issues. Healthy and natural food, spa cuisine, was central to the spa experience. What is spa cuisine? Cathy Cluff, director of the Oaks at Ojai and daughter of spa and fitness pioneer Sheila Cluff, laughed when I asked her to define spa cuisine. She said that asking that question is like asking someone to define "the spa experience." When pressed for spa cuisine guidelines, Cathy suggested the following:

  • Limit fat: under 20% fat, no added salt, sugar or white flour.
  • Use fresh herbs whenever possible.
  • Feature special ingredients, like agave nectar, a new sweetening agent.
  • Focus on fish and poultry; no red meat (although this is debatable).
  • Create meals that are beautiful, wholesome and tasty.

Cathy says the latest trend in spa cuisine is to create a menu and dining experience for the guest vs. letting them choose from a set menu. This way, the spa guest can receive the best of what the chef has to offer: food of the season; regional specialties; secret recipes; and a simple education of what and why you are eating this delicious entree. In fact, says Cathy, education of the client is one of the best forms of creating client retention, and should be woven throughout the whole spa programming.

For health-conscious massage therapists and bodyworkers, I definitely recommend visiting a spa that specializes in spa cuisine. Not only will you have a great time and a healthy retreat, you will also absorb knowledge that you can then share with your clients. Unfortunately, some destination spas can be pricey, so if you are on a tight budget this year, check out the recipe of the month on the International Spa Association website (www. Local day spas also have healthy, trend-setting options. Also, remember to remind your clients that after the rigors of massage, water treatments or exercise, it is advisable to eat simple, easily digestible foods.

We have a lot of work to do to when it comes to healthy eating, but we are on our way. Mary Tabacchi, a nutritionist from Cornell University and a spa spokesperson says that in the last 10 years or so, we have gone from the Pepsi Generation to the Fitness Generation. Nutrition, fitness and health are beginning to dominate our lifestyle. Mel Zuckerman, of Canyon Ranch, sums up this evolutionary yearning for better health when he says, "How we deliver our message may change, but how we truly get there does not. We tell our customers that wellness can be achieved by making emotional connection to health by finding balance of mind, body and spirit."

What do you think? Your voice is important. Join me at The Great Spa Conversation, hosted by

Click here for previous articles by Robin Zill, LMT.


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