Most of us tend to seek out “superfoods” or special diets, either to shed those extra few kilos, solve existing health issues, or prepare our bodies to fight adverse environmental conditions and build a strong immune system.
While the intention is good, unfortunately, most of us fall prey to social media — especially Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp forwards. And the results are the worst.
This edition of Health Matters is based on my interactions and interviews with nutritionists and physicians to delve deeper into this issue.
This column is a file extension previous article I’ve written about how Instagram reels and DIY videos leave users with damaged skin that ultimately needs expert intervention.
Self-prescription stories and harms
Sample this: A 44-year-old man was brought to the emergency department of a hospital in Bengaluru. The reason: an impending heart attack.
It was treated immediately with stent placement in the LCX artery. He had diabetes since he was 10 years old, but when he approached the hospital his HbA1C was 14 percent — more than double normal levels. HbA1C measures the amount of blood sugar (glucose) bound to hemoglobin.
Dr. Deepak Krishnamurthy, senior interventional cardiologist at Sakra, participated in the case study Globalism Hospital, Bengaluru, on Twitter.
Veeramachaneni or VRK diet recommends consuming 100 grams of ghee in one meal. The patient was inspired by social media. There are countless YouTube videos about this VRK diet,” Krishnamurthy tells me of the diet often called the “daisy” version of the keto diet.
Not only Krishnamurthy, but many doctors are facing a similar problem as social media users ignore the fact that the “one size fits all” approach does not work in the real world.
In another, a 40-year-old man with type 2 diabetes who was taking medication chose intermittent fasting and a low-carb diet sponsored by an influencer.
He followed it without any medical supervision. As a result, he developed severe hypoglycemia. One day, he passed out at work and hurt his back badly,” Dr. Subhasree Ray, who has a PhD in clinical nutrition and health expert, tells me over a WhatsApp chat.
Stories like these are endless now.
In Kerala, a fruit called Averrhoa Bilimbi, commonly known as Bilimbi, is used to make a refreshing fish curry. Dr. Rajeev Jayadevan, former president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), told me that the WhatsApp attacker made it famous for lowering cholesterol levels.
“This bilimbi drink trend has become hell,” he added.
People thought it was a quick fix, put it in a blender and drink the juice. However, these people ended up with irreversible kidney damage, and many needed a kidney transplant because the juice acted like Fevicol to the kidneys—the filters of the human body—and blocked the pores.
“The kidneys were clogged with oxalate crystals. This fruit is a flavor enhancer and safe for human consumption only if eaten in minimal amounts.”
Another popular fad is eating soaked fenugreek seeds (methi), especially among diabetics. However, people who took fenugreek decoction got into trouble.
Large doses of fenugreek seeds thin the blood and can cause dangerous bleeding in people with or without a medical history.
Social media inspiration is much higher in the post covid world
Taking ideal diet or diet advice from influencers on Instagram or social media can be harmful because they may not be qualified to provide nutritional advice and may promote fad diets or quick fixes that are not sustainable or healthy in the long term.
According to Dr. Varsha Gauri, Senior Clinical Dietitian and Head of Nutrition at Apollo Hospitals (Navi Mumbai), the impact of social media has become more aggressive due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
“During the times of COVID-19, there has been a greater impact of social media on people where suddenly good health is the prerequisite for survival,” she noted.
“Because of the same, 8 out of 10 patients are now looking at social media to design or modify their diet plans rather than approaching any doctor or specialist.”
Influencers often present a highly modified and formatted version of their lives, which can create unrealistic expectations and body image issues.
Experts tell me there are many examples of people experiencing negative health consequences from following fad diets and quick-fix weight loss plans promoted by unqualified individuals on social media. This can include malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies, and an increased risk of chronic disease.
Once Dr. Ray is visited by a young girl (depicted above) who suffers from severe nutritional deficiencies due to her self-chosen restrictive diet plan.
She was eating only 600 calories a day. “I became malnourished, lethargic, had problems with regular menstruation, sleep and mood problems,” Rae said, adding that there are many examples like her.
Why do you need to visit a nutritionist or doctors
Everyone is different and one diet plan will not work for everyone.
Apart from many other aspects, dieticians need to consider anthropometric measurements, ideal body mass index (BMI), biochemical parameters and clinical conditions while planning an individual’s diet.
Anthropometry is the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body, while the biochemical parameters include urea, creatinine, potassium, glucose, albumin, sodium and other important details of body functioning and balance.
It would be harmful to think that “superfoods” have no side effects. Every food can have a harmful effect rather than a benefit if eaten inappropriately.
When you visit a medically trained professional, a diet plan is made according to your clinical history. For example, one may need a low potassium diet related to diabetes, kidney disease, or related to poor heart function.
“We look at the finer things. The idea is to offer you a well-balanced diet based on your weight and medical history,” Dr Payal Sharma, a dietitian at Dharamshila Narayana Super Specialty Hospital based in Delhi, tells me.
In the event that a person requires a protein-based diet, the plan goes like this.
If you have an ideal body weight, then you need to eat 1 gram of protein per kilogram of weight. If you’re overweight, 0.8g protein/kg, and if you’re underweight, I might assign 1.2 to 1.3g protein/kg, adding: “This protein will be divided into two categories based on the patient’s choices – vegetable protein such as soybeans and protein animal like chicken or eggs.”
In short, it is important to be critical of any nutritional advice you receive, especially when it comes from an unqualified or untrained source.
It is always best to consult a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian or physician, for personalized and safe nutritional advice.
After all, your health is important.
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