Ramadan is a spiritual month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims from around the globe all come together and fast. This is to abstain from all food and drink during sunlight hours.
Fasting is intended to help teach Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity. It also reminds them of the suffering of the poor, who may rarely get to eat well.
It is common to have one meal (known as the suhoor), just before sunrise and another (known as the iftar), directly after sunset.
Because Ramadan is a time to spend with friends and family, the fast will often be broken by different Muslim families coming together to share in an evening meal.
Depending on where you are in the world, will determine how long your fast will be, ie; how long in between sunrise and sunset. The climate you are in will make a big difference as well, in hot countries such as Dubai you need to be particularly careful to keep from dehydrating in the strong heat.
Fasting is also an excellent time to give up smoking, as you cannot smoke for the majority of the day it is the perfect opportunity to quit smoking easily and for good.
What about your health during Ramadan?
Fasting can be good for your health as long as it is done correctly. When the body is starved of food, it starts to burn fat so that it can make energy. This can lead to weight loss. However, if you fast for too long your body will eventually start breaking down muscle protein for energy, which is unhealthy.
Dr Razeen Mahroof, an anaesthetist from Oxford, says there’s a strong relationship between diet and health.
“Ramadan isn’t always thought of as being an opportunity to lose weight because the spiritual aspect is emphasised more generally than the health aspect,” he says. “However, it’s a great chance to get the physical benefits as well.”
Source of energy
The changes that happen in the body during a fast depend on the length of the continuous fast. The body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finishes absorbing nutrients from the food.
In the normal state, body glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles, is the body’s main source of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is used up first to provide energy. Later in the fast, once the glucose runs out, fat becomes the next source of energy for the body.
With a prolonged fast of many days or weeks, the body starts using protein for energy.
This is the technical description of what is commonly known as ‘starvation’. It is clearly unhealthy. It involves protein being released from the breakdown of muscle, which is why people who starve look very thin and become very weak.
However, you are unlikely to reach the starvation stage during Ramadan because the fast is broken daily.
As the Ramadan fast only lasts from dawn till dusk, the body’s energy can be replaced in the pre-dawn and dusk meals.
This provides a gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main source of energy, and prevents the breakdown of muscle for protein.
Dr Mahroof says the use of fat for energy helps weight loss. It preserves the muscles and eventually reduces your cholesterol level. In addition, weight loss results in better control of diabetes and reduces blood pressure.
“A detoxification process also occurs, because any toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body,” says Dr Mahroof.
After a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood, making you more alert and giving an overall feeling of general mental wellbeing.
A balanced food and fluid intake is important between fasts. The kidneys are very efficient at maintaining the body’s water and salts, such as sodium and potassium. However, these can be lost through perspiration.
To prevent muscle breakdown, meals must contain enough energy food, such as carbohydrates and some fat.
“The way to approach your diet during fasting is similar to the way you should be eating outside Ramadan,” says Dr Mahroof. “You should have a balanced diet with the right proportion of carbs, fat and protein.” (NHS UK)
Practical tips to keep healthy during Ramadan 2012
- Stay hydrated. Because our body is mostly water, the best source of fluid replacement is pure water. Aim to drink enough water at night to avoid dehydration and headaches during the day.
- Eat well to stay healthy. Start gently and break your fast with dates, water or milk. After a long period of fasting, you need to bring your fluids and blood sugar level up without overloading your body. Have some fruit and nuts to get your digestion system gently going. Resist deep fried food such as samosa’s, chips and heavy savoury pastries.
- Eat slowly and don’t overdo it. The longer we chew our food, the less work our digestive track needs to do and we absorb more nutrients. During Ramadan the digestive system isn’t being used, so remember to not overburden it.
- Exercise when you can. It is important for your circulation to maintain some kind of exercise. Get into the habit of going for an evening walk, or just to get some fresh air. Fresh air is important for your body and it will also help you to sleep well.
- Sleep well. A good sleep is necessary to ensure balance the next day especially for those who go to work. Lack of sleep can express itself in the form of nervousness, bad headaches and digestive problems.
For more information, get the Dept of Health Guidelines for Ramadan here.
In Muslim countries such as Dubai, it is important that all non Muslims respect the month of Ramadan, which means adopting certain rules in public during daylight hours. Read the ExPat Woman Ramadan Guide here.
Wishing everyone a peaceful, happy Ramadan 2012. Shelly 🙂