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When eating right is all wrong

An unhealthy obsession with ‘pure’ and ‘correct’ food seems to be catching on, writes Tasneem Nashrulla.

entertainment Updated: Sep 20, 2009 01:12 IST
Tasneem Nashrulla

For three years now, Vishal Jaiswal hasn’t consumed salt, sugar, spices or any other non-whole sources of food. He eats fruits and vegetables only if they’re organic, fresh and seasonal. And avoids all those that have been introduced to the country in the last 100 years (as they are not naturally grown.) He hasn’t eaten at a restaurant in six years and is soon going to stop eating chapattis too (due to the unavailability of sproutable wheat.)

Jaiswal, a 33-year-old software engineer from Mumbai’s Vile Parle, shows symptoms of orthorexia nervosa — an eating disorder in which sufferers have an unhealthy obsession with eating what they perceive to be ‘healthy’. US-based Dr Steve Bratman coined the term in 1997 from the Greek ‘orthos’ meaning correct or right, and ‘orexis’ for appetite.

While orthorexia nervosa has gained a lot of attention in the psychiatric community, it is not currently recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s list of official eating disorders. Jaiswal, who has heard of this disorder, dismisses its gravity. “Why should I embrace anything that is bad?,” he says.

All this started in 2005, when Jaiswal fell ill and was confined to eight months of bed rest. After recovering, he began implementing what he researched in all those months — that food should be organic, fresh, whole, raw or sprouted, seasonal and local.

Since Jaiswal’s body was already addicted to organic fare during his US stint, he was unable to stomach the locally-available non-organic fruits and vegetables. Now, he travels once a week to a small village in Gujarat to get his supply of organic fruits, orders organic dry fruits from California and has organic veggies couriered every 10 days from a Delhi store.

But Jaiswal defends his dietary dysfunction. “After this diet change, I stopped suffering from a respiratory tract infection; my mood swings and emotional outbursts have stopped.”

Says Dr Sneha Hoonjan, nutritionist at Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital, “It is perfectly fine to want to eat right. But it’s not right to omit any food group completely. This condition is very common in teenagers; they switch over to crash diets, avoid chapattis, rice, and breads etc., and exclude protein groups like milk and milk products. This leads to nutritional deficiency and, malnutrition.”

Twenty-two-year-old professional dancer Tanvi Mehrotra is a self-proclaimed orthorexic. “Over-obsessed” with her body, she stopped eating all carbohydrates — rice, roti and bread — after Class 12. She just survives on generous proportions of grilled fish and vegetables, fruits, nuts, green tea, coconut water and lots of nimbu paani (lime water).

“Being a dancer, I was always very conscious of my body and could not afford even a tiny bulge of flab,” says Mehrotra, who formulated her own dietary plan, while refusing to consult any nutritionist.

Today, she has no qualms admitting that she suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder about eating healthy food, even confessing that she’s lost appetite “with all this nonsense I follow”. Still, she’s adamant that she never starves herself and is happy with the way she looks and feels. “My friends used to get irritated about my fussy food habits, but now they’re influenced by what I eat,” says Mehrotra.

Delhi-based nutritionist Ishi Khosla, cautions, “Orthorexia nervosa isn’t common in India yet, but it’s growing. Like all other eating disorders, this one also stems from an individual’s insecurities and psychological issues.”

With inputs from Shalini Singh