I Spent a Week at a Swanky Weight Loss Resort—Here’s What Went Down
I recently spent five days and four nights at Hilton Head Health (aka H3), a South Carolina-based weight loss and wellness resort. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to best describe my experience, and I finally settled on this: It was a really swanky adult version of summer camp. Meaning: It was luxurious, adventure-packed, educational...and also exhausting.
I’d never been to a weight loss resort before, and frankly, didn’t know they were a “thing” until late last year, when I got connected with H3’s former in-house registered dietitian. After telling me all about their programs, H3 invited me to tour the facilities for myself. While I don’t have any current weight loss goals, I was eager to learn about the latest in health, nutrition and fitness, and also just curious about what really goes on at a place like this. So I jumped at the chance—and here’s what went down.
Full disclosure: H3 footed the bill, but all opinions here are from yours truly.
I worked out... a lot.
H3 offered nearly 20 (!) different fitness classes every single day, which meant working out became pretty much the number one priority of my stay. The classes—which began as early as 7 a.m. and usually wrapped by 5 p.m.—ranged from gentle activities like “stretching and relaxation” and “yoga for balance” to more intense sweat sessions like “treading” (coached treadmill intervals), “TRX tabata” (a specialized form of suspension training done in short, intense bursts), and “aqua resistance training” (a weighted aerobic workout in the salt water pool).
What was especially cool about these classes is that they were all small in size—typically no more than 10 people a class. This meant I (and everyone else in the class) got significant one-on-one attention and advice from the instructors, who were great at explaining each move and providing modifications so that the workout could be customized to every person’s unique ability level.
Because I typically just run or hike for fitness, I wanted to switch it up and try as many different classes as possible. I ended up averaging 3 to 4 workouts a day—something I’d never be able to do during my normal life—and felt like a champ... albeit a very sore champ.
[Note: my fitness program at H3 was self-prescribed, but Bob Wright, the resort’s director of education, tells me the standard guest will go through an initial health screening upon arriving that assesses weight, height, blood pressure and a lipid profile to “make sure that every guest can can safely participate in the exercises.” And for an additional fee, guests can receive a personalized exercise prescription based on their current fitness level and goals.]
I napped every afternoon.
All of that working out transformed my sleeping habits into those of a 2-year-old child. Around 3 or 4 p.m. every day, I’d get that heavy-eyelid, achy-limb feeling of full-body fatigue and would completely conk out for a solid one to two hours, usually arising just in time for dinner. Sleeping, I hear, is good for your health, so I felt extra great about this delightful and decadent routine.
I ate super clean—and super light.
Meals were served sit-down restaurant style during set times throughout the day—breakfast between 7:30 - 9:30 a.m.; lunch between 12-1:30 p.m.; and dinner between 5-6:30 p.m.. This provided helpful structure around which I could plan my classes (and naps). There was also a refueling station open between meals that offered “FitBites,” or small servings of healthy snacks, like apples, bananas, dried fruit, nuts, cottage cheese and cut veggies with dip.
The food was tasty, fresh and heavy on fibrous ingredients, like beans, lentils, fruits and veggies. The focus on fiber, which helps with satiation, was good because the meals were low-calorie.
Very low-calorie. I know this because the menus listed calorie counts for every item, and when I totaled up a typical day of eating (menu items only—no snacks), it barely hit 1,000 calories. [The snacks added an extra 25 to 100 calories each].
Breakfast, for example, had between 5 and 6 options, including fresh fruit crepes, banana nut oatmeal and an eggs benedict. None of them were over 200 calories. There was also an option to order 100-calorie-or-less a la carte items like fresh berries, plain Greek yogurt, or a smoothie.
The lunch and dinner menus included an appetizer section with three or four 100-calorie-or-less options—usually simple soups, like tomato and asparagus, or house salads—and an entree section with five to six dishes that ranged between 250 and 350 calories—like a sushi bowl, black bean tacos, Hawaiian pulled chicken sandwich, chicken Parmesan, or pistachio-encrusted salmon.
Dessert was served just twice a week—after dinner on Wednesday and Saturday—and added between 100 and 200 calories.
Towards the end of my stay, I was delighted to learn that H3 shares some of these recipes on their website. My favorites were the peanut butter hummus (so good with crackers or bell pepper slices), banana chocolate peanut butter smoothie (not as rich as you’d expect—and yes, I love me some PB), and the asparagus salad (a light-yet-filling mix of grape tomatoes, asparagus, red onion and feta).
While the food was quite tasty, I’m not going to lie: The low-calorie diet coupled with the intense workout schedule meant I went to bed hungry most nights. But being hungry is probably a given at any weight loss resort, and I was never completely famished, thanks to the high-fiber content of every meal.
The intention at H3, says Wright, is for the average guest to have between 1,200 and 1,400 calories a day. “Our belief is that it’s hard to meet nutritional needs and feel sated and energized with less than 1,200 calories,” he explains, which is why healthy snacking is encouraged.
Carolyn Williams, PhD and registered dietitian who is not affiliated with H3, says that a 1,200 calorie-a-day diet is “on the low end,” especially if you are exercising a lot. “But if you are lying by the pool all day, that may be appropriate.”
Because caloric needs can depend on so many factors like your gender, height and genetics as well as how much and often you exercise, H3 offers personalized nutrition consultations. Guests in the weight loss specific program are given a metabolic analysis at the beginning of their stay to determine a more precise calorie count tailored to their goals.
While this careful tracking of calories is common at weight loss resorts and with weight loss programs in general, calories shouldn’t be your sole focus, caveats Williams. “We used to think it [weight loss and maintenance] was all about calories in vs. calories out, but some of the new research we are seeing shows that macronutrients and other factors should be considered, too.”
[Also of note: H3 guests with diabetes receive a 15-minute consultation upon arrival. “It’s a way to make sure that people don’t experience hypoglycemia and have a safe stay,” explains Elizabeth Huggins, H3’s on-site registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.]
I hydrated like a boss.
One of my favorite places at H3 was the hydration station, which was set up right outside the dining room and accessible throughout the day. There were 4 options, all zero-calorie: pineapple-berry infused water, cucumber-mint infused water, berry-hibiscus tea, and a black tea.
I’m pretty good about staying hydrated, but these delicious drinks—especially the pineapple-berry, which was so well-flavored that it almost tasted like juice—took my imbibing habits to the next level. This helped quell the between-meal hunger pangs.
I explored the local terrain.
In addition to the fitness classes hosted at the resort, there were also daily opportunities to explore the island. We rented bikes and peddled along the sand-packed beach, did seaside strength training and meditation, walked 3 miles through a local nature preserve, and waded through oyster-inhabited marshes during a 2-hour stand-up paddle boarding class. These guided field trips were a great way to get my touristy fix while also sneaking in even more exercise.
I learned about nutrition and proper portion sizes.
During my stay, there were 14 different lectures hosted by H3’s in-house experts, covering nutrition topics like healthy vs. unhealthy carbs and the role alcohol plays in a healthy diet, as well as broader wellness topics, like goal setting, portion control, and health technology.
Because I was so focused on attending as many fitness classes and island excursions as possible (#overeager), I only made it to one lecture—the carb one.
The presentation was smart, informative, and balanced—and made me wish I’d squeezed in time for more lectures. That said, I did learn a lot about proper portioning by simply eating in the dining hall every day and realizing what I’ve long considered a healthy portion is about double (sometimes triple) the recommended amount. Eek.
I met new chums.
I was lucky enough to experience H3 with my favorite travel buddy-slash-BFF—my mom. But many people were there solo, and just like any camp experience, it was easy to make friends.
We chatted up fellow guests at mealtime, during classes, in between sessions and on excursions. What surprised me were the variety of reasons people were there. It wasn’t just about the weight loss—and sometimes it wasn’t about the weight loss at all. Many people wanted to learn how to live longer, healthier, less-stressful lives...regardless of the scale.
There was a lot more that I didn’t have time to experience.
While I really tried to make the most of my stay at H3 (and frankly, was dog-tired by the end of it), there was also a lot I didn’t do. If I were there longer, I would have loved to check out the spa services, one-on-one nutrition and fitness consultations, morning meditation sessions, nightly ping pong games, private cooking classes, and definitely the myofascial rolling with cold therapy, which sounds as amazing as it does painful.
How weight loss resorts can (or can’t) translate into real world success.
While my experience at H3 was nothing short of peachy, weight loss resorts in general can get a bad rep for encouraging extreme, and therefore unsustainable, dieting and exercising.
“What I worry about from a weight loss perspective is it’s not realistic,” says Williams, of the overall concept of a weight loss resorts. “It’s easy to do when you’re there and don’t have jobs, kids, bills to pay and groceries to buy.”
That’s why she recommends “looking at what you are signing up for” and “find one that approaches things from a realistic perspective,” like a resort with a heavy emphasis on nutrition education and healthy cooking classes so that you can learn and practice transferable skills.
Get healthy by cooking your own meals, with the Cooking Light Diet.
This is certainly the mindset at H3. “This is not the real world,” Wright explains. “We understand that people can’t go home and do everything—and oftentimes even most—of what they did here.” (My 4-a-day-workouts and daily naps are a prime example.) “That’s why we ask people to think about how what they are doing at the resorts relates to what they will be doing back and home and how they can adjust things to be realistic for them.”
One of the seminars I didn’t get a chance to attend is the “Staying on Track” course, which focuses on this very idea. “We talk about goal setting, planning ahead, having support and recognizing no matter how well you plan and how motivated you are, you are going to slip,” says Wright. “From there, it’s how do you make sure a slip doesn’t become ‘I’ve blown it.’”
And for guests interested in follow-up support, H3 offers post-stay counseling for an additional fee.
What to consider before booking a stay.
It’s a good idea to consider your goals before choosing to visit a weight loss resort. Are you hoping to shed significant pounds? Wanting personalized nutrition and fitness advice? Simply looking for a high-end, healthy escape from reality? With its holistic approach to health, H3 can address all of these, but some weight loss resorts will specialize in certain areas, so it’s a good idea to 1) consider your goals and 2) do your research before signing up.
Because my 5-day stay was on the shorter end, I didn’t notice any physical changes (like weight loss or muscle gain) but I did feel less bloated and lethargic than usual, probably because I was drinking more water and eating essentially zero processed junk.
I also walked away with a different understanding of what it means to be “full.” I’m so used to eating until I’m fully—and oftentimes uncomfortably—sated, but the smaller portion sizes reminded me that I can eat less and still feel satisfied.
Lastly, one big thing to know: H3, and weight loss resorts in general, aren’t cheap. With weekly rates running between $3,075 to $4,500 per person, H3 is not something I’d swing for on my own. That said, if you can afford the price tag and approach the experience with realistic, long-term goals, you really can get a lot out of your stay.
From the variety of boutique-style fitness classes to the high-quality meals, personalized coaching and latest information in holistic health, it’s more than enough to kickstart your own weight loss journey—or simply improve the quality of your life, however you define that.