Ramadhan Health Guide
The month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to focus on bringing back a balanced and healthy lifestyle in your life. Through fasting you begin to learn how to manage your eating habits, how to improve self-control and discipline. This month requires you to give the stomach a break, and by doing so you are able to break down and expel the accumulated toxins from your body. Health is the key to happiness, and what we consume directly affects our health. Islam encourages Muslims to ensure that they are mindful of their health. The blessed Prophet said: “Take advantage of the good health before illnesses afflict you”.
The Health Survey for England 2004 (Department of Health, 2005) has shown poor health and lifestyle choices of the Asian community in general and Muslim community in particular. Compared with the 24% of men in `the general population who smoked cigarettes, higher levels of cigarette smoking were reported by Bangladeshi men (40%). South Asian men and women had the highest rates of diabetes. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were up to five times more likely than the general population to have diabetes, and Indian men and women were up to three times as likely. Some 33% of Pakistani men and women eat the recommended five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, compared with 28% of Bangladeshi men and women.
The physiological changes that occur during a fast
For many people, the key question regarding fasting is whether it is good or bad for your health. The answer to this requires a quick overview of what happens inside the body during fasting: the physiology of fasting.
The changes that occur in the body in response to fasting depend on the length of the continuous fast. Technically the body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finishes absorption of 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 stores of glucose run out, fat becomes the next store source of energy for the body. Small quantities of glucose are also’ manufactured’ through other mechanisms in the liver. Only with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks does the body eventually turn to protein for energy. This is the technical description of what is commonly known as ‘starvation’, and it is clearly unhealthy. It involves protein being released from the breakdown of muscle, which is why people who starve look emaciated and become very weak.
As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk, there is ample opportunity to replenish energy stores at pre-dawn and dusk meals. This provides a progressive, gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main source of energy, and prevents the breakdown of muscle for protein. The use of fat for energy aids weight loss, preserving the muscles, and in the long run reduces your cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss results in better control of diabetes and reduces 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 the fast, higher levels of certain hormones appear in the blood (endorphins), resulting in a better level of alertness and an overall feeling of general mental well-being.
Foods that benefit and foods that harm
The fasts of Ramadan can improve a person’s health, but – if the correct diet is not followed – can possibly worsen it! The deciding factor is not the fast itself, but rather what is consumed in the non-fasting hours. To fully benefit from fasting, a person should spare a great deal of thought to the type and quantity of food they will indulge in through the blessed month. Overeating can not only harm the body but it is thought also to interfere with a person’s spiritual growth during the month. The diet should be simple and not differ too much from one’s normal everyday diet.
Foods to avoid are the heavily-processed, fast-burning foods that contain refined carbohydrates in the form of sugar, white flour, etc., as well as, of course, too much fatty food (eg cakes, biscuits, chocolates and sweets, such as Indian Mithai). It may also be worth avoiding the caffeine content in drinks such as tea, coffee and cola. (Caffeine is a diuretic and stimulates faster water loss through urination.)
Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, should be a wholesome, moderate meal that is filling and provides enough energy for many hours. It is therefore particularly important to include slowly-digesting foods in the suhoor.
Iftar is the meal which breaks the day’s fast. This meal could include dates, following the Prophetic traditions. Dates will provide a refreshing burst of much-needed energy. Fruit juices will also have a similar, revitalising effect. The meal should remain a meal and not become a feast!
Spirituality and food
Food has a great significance in Islam. It is associated with one’s relationship with God. Chapter 20, verse 81 of the Qur’an states: “Eat of the good and wholesome things that We have provided for your sustenance, but indulge in no excess therein.”
The physical body is a gift from God; it is given to humans as an amanah (in trust) to take care of for a fixed period. How much food is consumed and the choice of food has a direct impact on the physical and spiritual well-being of the person. Overeating has long been frowned upon in Islam as it is thought to increase worldly appetites and cause sluggishness, thereby ‘dulling’ the soul, hampering spiritual growth and increasing physical ailments.
The blessed Prophet said: “The children of Adam fill no vessel worse than 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 his food, a third for his drink, and a third left for air.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhî)