HYDERABAD: Nisha*, a 32-year-old lecturer, was living a perfectly healthy life, apart from her mild OCD, and had a spot-on Body Mass Index (BMI) until in early 2020 when she went on an immunity-boosting diet.
Like most of us, when the pandemic broke out, Nisha, too, started searching on the Internet about different diets that can help her stay fit. Nisha, who once used to be mindful of her food habits and was not obsessed with diets, switched to a calorie-deficit diet.
When she learnt that obesity could worsen COVID-19 symptoms, she decided to further slash her calorie intake. Today, Nisha lives on only one meal a day, exercises for hours and is in constant fear of putting on weight.
In doctors' terminology, Nisha is suffering from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. COVID-19 has affected every nook and cranny of our life and this is one of them.
"Medical practitioners look at COVID as a different entity. The disease has accelerated a host of lifestyle disorders. We have not seen COVID infect the gut, but its prevalence is indirectly affecting our eating habits. Our intestines are considered as the second brain and poor food habits directly affect the digestive tract," says Dr Jagadeesh Kumar, associate director of the Department of Internal Medicine, AIG Hospitals, Hyderabad.
Dr Jagadeesh attributes the surge in anorexia cases to poor eating habits and unwarranted content on the Internet, especially since the pandemic broke out. "People, without proper knowledge, are speaking about nutrition and promoting diets. They are doing more harm than good," he says.
According to clinical psychologists, both anorexia and bulimia (a serious eating disorder marked by binge eating, followed by methods to avoid weight gain) are psychological disorders that have elevated during the pandemic.
"Many cases of eating disorders go unreported as people think it is successful weight loss. But, these eating disorders are potentially life threatening. In most cases, they begin with an obsession with certain foods and body image. Some people develop what is called, the Barbie Syndrome - they want to look like a Barbie doll, for which they eat less," Dr Venkat Subbaiah, clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Erragadda, says.
According to Dr Sujatha Stephen, chief dietician at Yashoda Hospitals, bulimia is rare, but many people have been complaining about anorexia lately. "The problem with anorexia is not the weight loss, but the metabolism. When one has lost a lot of weight and becomes underweight, they will find it difficult to restore their BMI as the metabolism they have adapted to resists change."
Anorexia can lead to severe dehydration, anaemia, protein deficiency, micronutrient deficiencies and irritable bowel syndrome. "The patients need psychological therapy, proper nutrition and even need to consult a gastroenterologist if they develop gut issues," says Dr Sujatha.