Ramadan and the act of fasting

Published on July 3, 2014

Muslims worldwide are now observing the holy month of Ramadan, taking place this year from June 29 to July 28. Ramadan is a month with celebrations, prayer and fasting that occurs annually during the ninth months of the lunar-based Islamic calendar (10 days shorter than the Christian calendar, causing the dates to shift every year).

Throughout this time, all Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk for the 30 days. This includes all food and drink (including water and even chewing gum) from dawn to sunset.

Those exempt from fasting include small children, anyone ill or elderly, those travelling, people on specific medications like insulin, or those who are pregnant or nursing.

Throughout the month of Ramadan, two main meals are consumed. A pre-dawn, pre-fast meal known as suhoor, and a “breaking of the fast” meal, called iftar, at sundown. From iftar to suhoor, Muslims are allowed to snack and are encouraged to stay well hydrated (especially important this year given Ramadan occurs during summer).

Foods consumed at meals can vary considerably from region to region, but typically at suhoor it is breakfast- or dinner-like foods, and iftar starts with dates and water, followed by a meal which may be served buffet-style and include more traditional-type foods.

As a side note, individuals of the Muslim faith also consume halal foods. Halal means foods considered lawful under Islamic law. It includes all foods with the exception of pork and its by-products, birds of prey, carnivorous animals, animals improperly slaughtered or dead before slaughtering, animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but Allah (God), animals without external ears (some birds and reptiles), blood, alcohol and foods contaminated with any of these.

Marking the end of Ramadan is Ed Al-Fitr, also known as the “feast of breaking the fast,” a day with no fasting and with celebration, and perhaps the most important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide.

The fasting with Ramadan is not for the purposes of weight loss, but rather an opportunity to focus on improving one’s character, changing behaviours and developing healthy habits.

Many Muslims aim for nutrient-dense foods to optimize nutrition, and see fasting as a way to detox and allow the gut to rest. Ramadan can actually result in a weight loss, weight gain or even no change in weight at all.

The idea of short-term intermittent fasting, such as seen during a healthy Ramadan (when one is consuming wholesome choices and refraining from bingeing on large amounts of food), may have some health benefits.

Most of the benefits seen have been in research with animals, so keep in mind there does need to be more study to see if this directly translates to people.

Here’s what we know so far: animal studies with short periods of fasting have suggested protection against obesity, diabetes, inflammation (a contributor to chronic disease), high blood pressure, heart disease, and the preservation of learning and memory function.

That said, when it comes to these results, there is also the matter of “what came first, the chicken or the egg,” so to speak. In other words, are the health benefits seen from the actual task of short-term fasting? Or from a likely reduction in overall calorie intake?

If you are celebrating Ramadan this year or know someone who is, consider these tips for a healthier holiday.

‰ Stay well hydrated with water and refrain from energy drinks, caffeinated and high-sugar drinks like soft drinks or coffee.

‰ When you are eating, eat until comfortably full and make wise food choices. Never skip suhoor, and at this meal choose foods that will leave you feeling energized throughout the day, like protein and fibre-rich foods.

‰ Try not to overeat at iftar, and eat a well-balanced nutritious meal, but not a feast. Choose smaller portions of the rich high fat, salt and sugar foods that may come with meal time, and leave one tired and sluggish.

‰ Lastly, use Ramadan as a time for cultivating healthy habits.

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s.

Contact her through the website: www.recipeforhealth.ca.