The blessed month of Ramadan is a time for worship, devotion and reflection on the deeper meaning of life. The spiritual exercises of fasting and prayer have a transforming influence not only on our hearts and minds but on the body, therefore:
Physiological changes during fasting
About eight hours after beginning the fast the body enters the fasting state. By now nutrients from the last meal have been absorbed from the food. The body uses the glucose made from its glycogen stores found in the liver for its metabolism, and various other activities. Once the glucose stores are used up, the body switches to using fat to make energy. In the short fasts of Ramadan (12 -16 hours long) the body’s glucose and fat stores are sufficient to prevent the breakdown of protein.
The use of body fat for energy is helpful in excess weight and blood cholesterol levels. In addition, it results in diabetes and blood pressure. A detoxification process also seems to occur as any toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body. After a few days of fasting, certain hormones also appear in the blood- endorphins in particular. They result in a better level of alertness and overall, general feeling of well being.
Fasting in Ramadan can improve the health or worsen it. The crucial factor is the food that is eaten at sahoor (the beginning) and at iftaar (the end). Over–indulging and feasting at these two times is quite common. As a consequence, not only are the health benefits of fasting lost, but the spiritual aspects of fasting are also diminished. Food intake must be reduced and a balance, simple diet used. Here are some suggestions for healthy eating.
Suggestions for Sahoor (the breakfast)
Some people have a large meal at Suhoor (dawn) usually fat-rich (a Parata, bread fried in butter) with the hope that it will keep them going throughout the day. The problem with this strategy is that the fat is absorbed by the blood and safely stored in fat deposits around the body. As the day passes, the body first uses the carbohydrates and as soon as the body senses an ‘impending starvation’ it slows down the metabolism and conserves energy by functioning on fewer calories. The ‘fuel efficiency’ mode makes it harder for you to lose weight. Only a small portion of the fat consumed at breakfast will be used, the rest becomes flab.
1. One bowl of porridge (in milk), one slice of toast and a handful of nuts.
2. Cornflakes/two Weetabix in milk, a plain scone/biscuit and an apple/banana.
3. A bowl of fruit with yoghurt, a slice of toast (brown bread) and some fruit juice.
Suggestions for iftaar (the opening)
If you want to really benefit from the fast then try this strategy at Iftari. Open the fast with dates and water or juice, eat slowly. It has been shown that it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal to the brain that it is full. This is why quickly wolfing down a meal in a few minutes leads to over-eating. Then pray Maghrib, now have one samosa or pakora. You’ll eat much less, God willing! This is the Sunnah too, eat slowly, small bites and chew well!
1. Chapatti with chicken curry, salad and sweet dish (halwa).
2. Boiled rice with chicken curry and fruit salad.
3. Pasta cooked with vegetables (if desired fish/chicken) and one slice of cake in custard.
4. Lentils or vegetable curry and two chapattis and sweet dish (Barfee/Rasmalai).
Some healthy foods to include in your everyday diet:
Fried foods such as Samosas, Pakoras, Chips and Kebabs should only be consumed once a week.
It is very important not to overeat
This may appear rhetorical and very obvious, yet we can easily fall into this trap when eating together with friends and relatives. Sadly, most of these iftaar parties are turned into sumptuous banquets. This requires enormous self-control and discipline to overcome the temptation of eating too much. Remember keep a meal as a meal, and make sure it does not become a feast. The Glorious Qur’an gives us a beautiful piece of advice that endorses this idea:
“Eat of the good and wholesome food that we have provided for your sustenance, but do not indulge in excess” (20:81).
Our bodies are a divine trust (amanah) and as such they must be taken care of. Consuming large amounts of food, in particular meats, fried delicacies, sweet and so forth must be controlled. Good physical health and mental well being is highly dependent on a balanced diet. A simple, balanced diet will keep you healthy and active during this holy month.
Islamic teaching discourages overeating, equating it with gluttony as being overly worldly. Overeating not only causes laziness, but incites the lower desires and is therefore considered as hampering spiritual development. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: “the children of Adam fill no vessel worse then their stomach. Sufficient for him is a few morsels to keep his back straight. If he must eat more, then a third should be for food, a third for water and one third for air” (Tirmidhi).
Undoubtedly, fasting is primarily for developing God–consciousness and moral qualities of patience and kindness. However, its contribution to a healthy life style cannot be ignored. The fasting person learns the skills of restraining himself from eating and drinking. He becomes disciplined and has self-mastery.
Some Doctors use fasting as a therapy
Dr. Elson Haas uses fasting as a healing therapy. He writes about his personal experience of fasting as: “When I first discovered fasting, fifteen years ago, I felt as though it had saved my life and transformed my illness into health. My stagnant energies began flowing and I became more creative and vitally alive.”
He recommended fasting for chronic digestive diseases that are sometimes a result of being over weight or malnourished, diseases like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Fasting, he says is “therapeutic and more importantly preventative for many of these conditions and more”.
Fasting is a detoxification process that allows cells and organs to breathe out and restore themselves. Dr. Caseus makes this observation about fasting: “…fasting in a larger context, means to abstain from that which is toxic to mind, body and soul. A way to understand this is that fasting is elimination of physical, emotional, and mental toxins from our organism, rather than simply cutting down or stopping food intake. Fasting for spiritual purposes usually involves some degree of removal of oneself from worldly responsibilities. It can mean complete silence and social isolation during the fast which can be a great revival to those of us who have been putting our energy outward” (Spiritual nutrition and rainbow diets).
Dr. Haas also adds that “first, fasting is a catalyst for change and an essential part of transformational medicine. It promotes relaxation and energises the body, mind and emotions, and supports a greater spiritual awareness. Many fasters feel a letting go of past actions and experiences and develop a positive attitude towards the present. Fasting clearly improves motivation and creative energy.”
Fasting is a straightforward process of self-cleansing. We do not need any special medication to do it; our body simply knows how to. Providing that we are basically well nourished, systematic under-eating and fasting are likely to be the most important contributors to health and longevity of life.
Here is another metaphor that vividly depicts the benefits of fasting; Fasting is like turning off and cleaning a complex and valuable machine so that it will function better and for longer. Reseting the gastro intestinal tract, letting the cells and tissues repair themselves, allowing the lymph, blood, and organs to clear out old defective or diseased cells and unneeded chemicals all lead to less degeneration and sickness. As healthy cells growth is stimulated, so is our level of vitality, immune function and disease resistance, and our potential for a longer, healthy life.
May Allah give us the ability to make the most out of this Ramadan, Ameen.