Like several people her age, Mansi Sharma, a 26-year-old media professional, was extremely careful about her diet. Initially, those around her were impressed, and even inspired by Mansi's ability to stay away from junk food, sweets and anything that is generally considered unhealthy. But, gradually, her steady weight loss, and her frail frame became a cause of concern for her family.
After a lot of persuasion, when Mansi finally visited her doctor, she was shocked to know that she was suffering from a condition called orthorexia. You'd wonder then, can being healthy lead to a medical condition? Apparently, yes.
"Orthorexia is an obsession with eating a 'pure' diet, which usually entails avoiding food with artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, unhealthy fats, added sugar or salt and genetic modification. Unlike anorexia or bulimia, orthorexia may have less to do with poor body image or self-esteem, and more to do with the fear of falling ill," says Dr Preeti Devnani, consultant, department of neurology and neurophysiology, Jaslok Hospital, Breach Candy.
While orthorexia is still not traditionally considered an eating disorder, doctors feel it is more than prevalent. Explaining the condition, Seema Hingorrany, clinical psychologist, explains that for those suffering from orthorexia, the fixation of eating the right kind of food is so strong that it becomes their only focus in life.
"They may eliminate entire groups of foods- such as dairy or grains - from their diets, all in the quest for a 'perfect' clean and healthy diet," says Hingorrany.
A recent Italian study published in Eating and Weight Disorders, an Italian medical journal, examined 404 volunteers and found that almost 7% of them suffered from orthorexia. Psychologists in India, too, are noticing an increase in patients facing this condition.
How do you cure orthorexia?
One of the main challenges involved in treating this problem is that many orthorexics don't think they need help. However, once they are convinced, meeting a counselor to get over the obsession can prove to be helpful. Nutritionist Neeraj Mehta says that orthorexia can be controlled by making the food intake options flexible. "Someone suffering from this condition should continue consuming healthy food, but they should understand what healthy eating is all about. Also, starting a proper exercise routine will help balance their metabolic processes, and give them confidence," he says.
Even though the very purpose of following a healthy diet is to take care of your body, orthorexia can lead to several issues. Nutritionist Shalini Bhargava says, "An obsession with healthy food may cause a restriction on calories, which may then lead to excessive loss of weight and reduction of BMI (Body Mass Index), which often leads to anorexia. This can also cause malnutrition and other health risks that are associated with it, for instance, deficiencies in macronutrients. Severe cases of orthorexia can also lead to cardiac complications or subsequent death. A healthy diet, in fact, consists of a balance of everything."
Is orthorexia a women-centric condition?
While orthorexia can be contracted by both men and women, according to experts, the female population is more susceptible to this problem, especially between the ages of 17 to 65.
"Also, people who have genetically obsessive behaviour are more prone to these types of patterns. These people are cynical about their health conditions and get too particular about eating the right kinds of foods, which ultimately becomes an unhealthy obsession for them," shares Hingorrany.