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Why too much of health food is bad

So tell us. How many papayas do you eat every week? And how many bunches of palak? Health food junkies, here’s a warning. Overdose on the good things and they’ll bite back. Kavita Devgan explains...
Hindustan Times | By Kavita Devgan
UPDATED ON FEB 07, 2012 10:13 AM IST
What happens when Mr Z decides that fruit is the healthiest food on earth and chooses to eat fruit all the time? Or when Ms Z believes that proteins were created just to keep her thin and banishes all other food groups from her diet?

"This is when good food turns bad," says Dr Rommel Tickoo, consultant, internal medicine, Max Hospital, Delhi. "When we have too much of even a good thing, it ceases to be good, and can in fact cause harm."

In this age of health obsession, we’ve been conditioned to think about foods as good or bad. If X is good and Y is bad, we reason, then for good health we should eat X and ditch Y. And once we’ve divided foods into good and bad, we begin to think that if a little of something is good for us, then a lot of it must be great. But that is a false argument, says Dr Tickoo.

"Amounts matter," he says. "Even when it comes to foods that are universally accepted as super good. Too much of anything is bad." Here’s a checklist of good foods that become bad when you eat too much of them, so you can keep an informed eye on what you’re eating.Fibre

There is absolutely no doubt that fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and all things good, and that they also contain fibre, which prevents constipation and other gastric problems. But too much fibre (for instance, when you eat platefuls of raw green leafy vegetables or salads like radishes day in and out) can mess things up – big time.

Excess fibre often causes bloating, abdominal cramps and gas right away. In the long term, it can interfere with the absorption of minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, causing some serious deficiencies.

"Plus, each individual food you overdose on has its own set of problems," says Dr Manjinder Sandhu, head of cardiology at Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon. "For example, eating large amounts of carrots or papaya will not necessarily result in greater benefits for you. Though the body converts the beta-carotene into vitamin A, it absorbs only the amount it needs, leaving the rest to stay in the system. Over time, this turns the palms of your hands and soles of your feet a yellow or yellowish-orange, a condition called carotenemia."

Carotenemia can also occur when you drink too much carrot juice or over-eat other foods high in beta-carotene, such as sweet potatoes, squash, spinach and broccoli. The condition, fortunately, is harmless and can be sorted out simply by staying away from vitamin A-rich foods for a while.

"Papaya also has a digestive enzyme called papain which has beneficial effects in moderation, but over-consumption can cause stomach discomfort, coughs, colds and wheezing," says Dr Arpit Jain, senior consultant, department of internal medicine, Artemis Health Institute. "Papaya, orange and kiwi are rich sources of vitamin C, very high consumption of which can cause headaches, vomiting, bladder irritation and occasionally, kidney stones too."

Finally, too many apples may cause gas, bloating and diarrhoea because of high fibre and sorbitol, and oranges and tomatoes can cause stomach irritation due to their high acidic content, Dr Jain adds.

KiwiWho’s at risk?

Vegans or vegetarians, raw food enthusiasts, and those who eat excessive amounts of fruit while taking fibre supplements.

Healthy Limit: We need about 25 to 35g of fibre daily, or about five cups of fruits and/or vegetables a day. Try to vary the fruit and veggies every day.


The body needs protein to repair and build muscle, but eating excessive amounts won’t do the job better. In fact, in a diet where the protein intake goes beyond 30 per cent of the daily caloric intake, a build up of toxic ketones in the body may occur, causing the kidneys to go into overdrive in an attempt to flush them out. This may lead to a significant loss of water and calcium from the body, causing dehydration and bone loss. Symptoms include a feeling of weakness and dizziness, dry skin, loss of hair, low appetite, nausea and bad breath. In the long term, this may strain the kidneys, stretch out the liver and put stress on your heart too.

"Weightloss efforts go bust too, as excess protein is converted into fat," says Dr Tickoo. "Another problem is that while making protein into carbs or fat, the body converts the protein’s nitrogen into urea or uric acid. In large amounts, this can mess up your kidneys, lead to gout (a condition that causes your joints to become inflamed, tender and painful to move) and cause gallstones and kidney stones."

Be super careful with protein shakes and bars. The body can process only about four to five grams of protein per hour, so the 50 grams you got from that protein bar or shake will take about 10 hours to digest and absorb. Also, when you replace your meals with protein shakes, you run the risk of missing the vitamins and nutrients you get from real food.

Red meat is hard on the digestive system because it can take up to 16 hours to digest, a situation that can create a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria too. In the long run, too much protein may increase the risk of getting haemorrhoids, polyps and colon cancer.

Who’s at risk?

Strict ‘only non vegetarians’, those who follow high-protein weightloss fad diets repeatedly, and those who try to build muscles in a hurry by resorting to unregulated use of protein shakes, meals and bars.

Healthy Limit: Most people need about 50 to 70g of protein a day. Here are some measures: approximately 200g of chicken or fish or 150g of mutton provides 40g of protein, 1 egg provides 5g of protein and 250–500ml of milk provides 9 to 18g of protein. More than this means you’re in excess for the day.


Water is without doubt the most essential dietary ingredient. But too much water can increase the total blood volume and place an unnecessary burden on the heart and blood vessels. It can also lead to a fortunately rare but potentially fatal condition called hyponatraemia, in which the body’s salt levels drop and the brain swells.

Symptoms of water intoxication include headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination and mental disorientation.

Who’s at risk?

Marathon runners and athletes have problems when they drink a lot of water quickly or drink water without sufficient electrolytes. People following fad diets are at risk. People with impaired kidney functions should be careful too.

Healthy Limit: We are unlikely to suffer from water intoxication even if we drink a lot of water, as long as we drink it over time rather than downing an enormous volume at one time. As a general guideline, most adults need approximately 8-10 glasses every day. But it’s best to let thirst be your guide. If it’s a hot day, drink a little more, but don’t force down gallons of water because you think you must. "Drink enough water so that your urine is colourless or light yellow," suggests Dr Tickoo. While exercising, balance what you’re drinking with what you’re losing in sweat – and that includes sports drinks.TeaTea

Tea keeps our hearts healthy, it’s soothing and stress relieving. But it’s addictive. So there is a possibility that four cups a day will become 10. Radio jockey Radhika Sharma, 36, found that out when she counted the number of cups of tea she drank one day and found it totalled 17.

Tea contains around 40mg caffeine per cup. "Caffeine is thought to inhibit the absorption of iron and some vitamins and is also linked to headaches, jitteriness, digestive disruption, irritability, confusion, headaches, tremors, irregular heartbeats and insomnia," says Dr Tickoo. "People who are sensitive to caffeine may also suffer from acidity as it leads to production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach."

The tea in teabags is more finely cut and releases caffeine more quickly. And the longer you brew the tea, the more caffeine will be extracted. Drink too much tea and you could also take too much fluoride into your system and develop a state of fluorosis, which can cause a bone disease called osteosclerosis (brittle poor quality bones).

Who’s at risk?

Those who are predisposed to heartburn and stomach ulcers. Diabetics and people with high blood pressure need to be careful too. In any case, addiction is bad for anyone.

Healthy Limit: If you drink more than five cups a day, consider decaffeinated tea. Look at the size of your cup too. Two cups of tea a day from the neighbourhood café is more like six cups a day.


Though fish contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids that help fight heart disease, and maybe even Alzheimer’s, it also contains heavy metal toxins such as mercury (found especially in tuna, swordfish and shark). When eaten regularly, these can remain in your system and can lead to serious health and cognitive problems, including heart disease and reduced memory and concentration.

"Be careful with fish oil supplements too," warns Dr Sandhu. "High doses might reduce the immune system’s activity which would reduce the body’s ability to fight infection. They could also lead to an increase in the body’s LDL (bad) cholesterol."

Who’s at risk?

Pregnant women and very young children are especially susceptible to mercury, but everyone needs to watch their intake. Those taking blood pressure medications need to be careful of fish oil supplements as they may cause the blood pressure to drop too sharply.

Healthy Limit: Choose cold-water fish known to contain less mercury, such as shrimp, salmon, catfish, carp, trout, squid, canned light tuna, herring and sardines, or stick to farm bred fish. Have about 20-25g per day or limit yourself to two meals of fish a week. "Fish oil supplements are safe between 3 and 5g a day," says Dr Jain.


The Japanese eat soya and stay healthy and live longer. It is high in protein and has zero cholesterol. So what could be wrong with that?

That’s true, but what is also true is that most Japanese eat only about 8 to 10g of soy protein a day, and even soya causes problems when eaten in excess. "If overeaten, it may promote cancer, dementia, reproductive abnormalities, osteoporosis and thyroid disorders," says Dr Jain. "Increased consumption could also increase a woman’s total estrogen level, which is a risk factor for breast cancer." For men, excessive soya can raise the risk of infertility, physical changes and hormonal havoc.

That’s what happened to 36-year-old Gurgaon-based engineer Ramanujan Murthy. He switched to soy milk when he turned lactose intolerant and drank lots of it because he loved the taste. A few years later, he had emotional issues and his body was going through physical changes – all tracked to excess estrogen in his body, due to his excessive consumption of soya.

Who’s at risk?

Everyone needs to be careful, particularly infants (so don’t wean them on soya formulas).

Healthy Limit: "About two servings (about 25-30g) per day of soya foods is safe," says Dr Sandhu. And eat more fermented soya products such as tempeh, soya sauce and miso soups, than non-fermented products like soy milk, tofu and so on. This is because these are high in phytic acid which causes most of the problems. Avoid soy supplements, energy bars and powders.

— The author is a Delhi-based nutritionist and writer
Go easy on these too


Marketing executive Neeraj was popping 15 pills in the morning and 13 pills in the evening (vitamins and other supplements) because he thought this would guarantee good health. Soon he had cardiac issues, diabetes and hyperuricaemia.

"You can overdose even on vitamins if you take them long enough and in high doses. Vitamins A, D, E and K, when stored in the body in greater-than-needed amounts, can reach toxic levels," says Dr Rommel Tickoo, consultant, internal medicine, Max Hospital, Delhi. "If you’re eating well and not suffering from any ailment, you don’t require multivitamins. Take them only if they have been prescribed."

Journalist Ramaya had a densitometry test after a major fracture and found she was osteoporotic. At age 24! Even her doctor was shocked. Why did this happen? Because the exercise hours she was diligently putting in were eroding her bone mass.

Symptoms of over exercising are usually fatigue, weightloss, trouble sleeping, decreased bone density, absent or infrequent menstruation, dehydration, bingeing, injury, and pain after exercise.

“Thirty to sixty minutes of exercise five times a week is considered optimum,” says Nisha Verma, Reebok Master Trainer (North India).

HealthThe health food disorder

Orthorexia Nervosa is the term used for an obsessive addiction to health food. People with the disorder are obsessed with eating to improve their health. This behaviour is similar to that of people with anorexia or bulimia, except that anorexics and bulimics are obsessed by food quantity whereas orthorexics are obsessed by food quality.

Studies show the disorder is slightly more prevalent in women than men, becomes more severe after age 30, and is more likely to appear in upper-class people with higher education. Patients need to work with a dietician to include a larger variety of foods in their menus, and talk to a psychologist if necessary.

Why do we get sucked in?
There is just too much information floating about on food. Eat this, don’t eat that... You hear this all the time and read it everywhere. You even have Sakshi Tanwar, TV’s favourite bahu, telling everyone in the serial Bade Achhe Lagte Hain how healthy almonds are and how she cannot stop once she begins to eat them. And there are too many movie stars vouching for protein shakes to mention here.

This avalanche of information (much of it from dubious sources) makes us believe that we know enough on the subject to know what to eat.

But really, it isn’t as simple as that. As a nutritionist, when I ask my clients why they stick only to foods that they consider ‘good’, I’m told, “I feel safe with this.”

And because they feel safe with these, they decide to eat only those foods – forgetting completely the need for moderation and the fact that good health is based on a varied diet.

Unfortunately this is not how it works! Foods are not ‘good’ and ‘bad’. That’s a much too simplistic way to describe how foods work. Some seemingly bad foods – for instance, fats – are essential for the proper functioning of the body, albeit in small amounts. And some super healthy foods – such as turnips – can be lethal if eaten too much as they contain psoralens, which are potent carcinogens. Even water in excess can be damaging – and the same goes for broccoli!

There’s an old saying: you can’t get too much of a good thing. Reality begs to differ. In trying to eat the healthiest food, we sometimes go too far. And make no mistake: gormandising good eats is gluttony – and it’s damaging!

So what’s the solution?
It’s important not to choke on ‘facts’ because these are facts only till the next study rubbishes them. Remember what happened to fats: first there was a blanket ban on them and now some (like omega-3) are supposedly ‘essential’. So don’t blindly follow all food alerts. Stay in the know, but eat by instinct.

Also, nothing is completely bad. Foods are only bad when eaten in excess. Quantity really matters. As I tell my clients, there is only one sacred rule for diets – eat in moderation and you’ll never go wrong. This way whatever research reveals or buries, you’ll be in the pink of health!

From HT Brunch, February 5

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