“Always take the positives out of a negative situation. Never overthink or stress. Every situation has a lesson to teach us”.Dr. Bilal Philips
Table of contents
- How does fasting affect our body?
- Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
- Other potential benefits
- Diet during Ramadan
- Points to consider when breaking your fast
- Is it safe to fast amidst Covid?
- Fasting and people with special nutritional needs
- Pin Me
- You may also like
We are about to enter the holy month of Ramadan for another year. Things are yet to be normal as we are still under the grip of a pandemic.
During this time, when people are into social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus, among the many challenges pious Muslims face during the COVID-19 pandemic is how to mark Ramadan. Across different countries, restrictions on public gatherings are still in place. So this Ramadan too will witness and uphold traditional ritualistic forms of worship in the quietness of many households.
Ramadan is the 9th lunar month in an Islamic calendar year. It is the month when the “Holy Quran” was handed over to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) for the first time. The most important significance of Ramadan is that Muslims are required to observe fasting during daylight hours. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and every adult is obligatory to fast.
During this month, foods and fluids are only allowed at night. So fasting extends from dawn to sunset – the exact length of time dependent on geographical location and season. However, children(under the age of puberty), people who are elderly, sick, or have certain health conditions, learning difficulties, and if travelling is exempted. Also, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating are exempted from fasting.
How does fasting affect our body?
Day-long fasting for a month definitely has its impact on our body and health. And at these vulnerable times, the biggest confusion that arises in most minds is whether abstinence from food and liquids, including water, from sunrise to sunset each day during Ramadan would be a health risk? Should people with medical conditions or weakened immune systems go for fasting? But, contrary to what we fear, several research studies have shown that intermittent fasting, the kind practiced during Ramadan, has several health protective effects.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
In recent years, research studies have established the benefits of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is common in many religions around the world. I have tried to put the findings in the pictorial representation here.
A study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicines – Cabo, and Mattson (2019), mentions that a time shift in eating hours with intermittent fasting accelerates the body’s metabolism. It switches from a glucose-based to a ketone-based energy system, which helps in utilizing the stored body fats. In healthy individuals, during the fasting state, meals are skipped. This reduces the glucose level in the blood. The insulin production in the body also decreases accordingly as the blood glucose levels are low.
The body is able to manage its normal function during fasting as it uses the stored glucose from the liver as well as the muscles. It does so in the form of glycogen, with the help of some hormones known as counter-regulatory hormones. This is because glucose is very essential for the normal functioning of the brain and red blood cells. The body also uses stored fats as fuel when glucose availability is reduced. The ketones produced from the breakdown of fats are used by the skeletal muscles, heart muscles, etc. as fuel. Thus, it is a very complex metabolic activity.
Other potential benefits
Regular fasting in animals is associated not only with weight loss but also with the following
- lower blood pressure and heart rate,
- reduced insulin resistance,
- lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels,
- higher “good” HDL cholesterol levels, and
- less inflammation.
However, these studies were carried out on medically supervised subjects and may vary according to individual conditions and their diets.
I say this because according to reports when the pre-Ramadan lipid profile was compared to post-Ramadan values, it showed a decrease in weight for the initial days. But an interesting finding was that post-Ramadan, total cholesterol, and triglyceride decreased in men but not so in the case of women.
This was attributed to the fact that men went on with their normal work whereas women reverted back to being sedentary lifestyle staying at home.
Diet during Ramadan
One of my young friends from Kashmir, Shabnam, once told me that the “Holy book has a solution for every question that arises. We only have to learn to read and understand it that way”. Yes, indeed, I cannot differ from her.
At times, I feel our ancestors were more advanced and knowledgeable than us. Their learning had science behind everything they did. For instance, since we are talking about Ramadan, there is this teaching of Prophet Mohammad, where he is quoted as saying “When one of you is fasting, he should break his fast with dates; but if he cannot get any, then with water, for water is purifying”. So it might have implied that, eating dates, which are high in sugars, helps the fasting body’s blood glucose levels to quickly return to normal. After that, one should drink water which will hydrate the dehydrated system .
Points to consider when breaking your fast
Hydrate to rejuvenate
It is indeed essential to normalize the body’s metabolism before going on to a heavier meal. Breaking the fast with easily digestible foods is a healthy practice. After a long day of fasting one should avoid eating a heavy meal immediately. Instead, after breaking your fast, you should try to rejuvenate the body with a soup or freshly squeezed fruit juice, so that your body is hydrated enough. Then, go for the main course with a break of 15 or 20 minutes. This will also provide a feeling of fullness, prevent overeating and this, in turn, will help the digestive system.
Include variety – quality upon quantity
Always remember to fill your iftar with quality and variety rather than quantity. Try to include coloured vegetables, greens, and fruits; these are not only nutrient-rich but also supply the much-needed fibre, which is so important for avoiding constipation. A mixed platter of whole grains and legumes, seasonal vegetables, greens and spices, fruits, meat, and poultry will also help maintain your body’s immunity.
Choose fruits over juices
Eating whole fruit is definitely a better choice than its juice. Avoid too much fat (not more than 2 tablespoons/person/day), use preferably more than 2 varieties of oils, restrict salt consumption (not more than 1 teaspoon/person/day). Remember to keep sugar to a bare minimum as it provides only calories with no other nutrients.
Eat healthy meal that is light butfilling
Some of my friends practice eating another heavy meal just before going to sleep, skipping suhoor, and fasting till the next iftar. This should be avoided as it can lead to very low sugar levels and dehydration. This will also cause distraction, dizziness, and hamper your normal day-to-day life, which isn’t the way of Ramadan. You should always eat during suhoor, and it should be healthy but light and filling.
Go for whole-grain preparations which release sugars slowly, dairy products, boiled or steamed vegetables, cheese, eggs, and light salads. Dry fruits such as almonds and walnuts can also be had which can give you a feeling of fullness for longer. And remember to drink enough water or fresh fruit juice to keep you hydrated enough for the day.
What I have written above is about keeping you nutritionally balanced during Ramadan. But the spiritual calmness and strength gained during this period of fasting go a long way in making one’s life contended and healthy.
Is it safe to fast amidst Covid?
Observing fast during Ramadan is definitely a deep spiritual calling for followers of Islam and many will choose to abide. However, we must agree that some people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Consider your existing health conditions to decide whether you should fast or not. Especially when immunity is so essential during this time of an existing contagious health disaster. People who show symptoms of Coronavirus infections or who have been in contact with carriers may refrain from fasting. As it might pose a risk to their immune system.
Though intermittent fasting shows promise, we don’t have solid evidence about the benefits or how fasting might affect older adults. Human studies have looked mostly at small groups of young or middle-aged adults, for only short periods of time.
In his statement, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe said that “Some of the reasons older people are greatly impacted by COVID-19 include the physiological changes are associated with aging, decreased immune function and multimorbidity which expose older adults to be more susceptible to the infection itself and make them more likely to suffer severely from COVID-19 disease and more serious complications”.
Fasting and people with special nutritional needs
Although studies show that Ramadan fasting had no serious adverse effect on offspring, Rouhani and Azadbakht (2014) recommended pregnant women to refrain from fasting because of the limitations of studies and such cases depended on several other variables such as pregnancy duration, nutritional status before, during and after the Ramadan, maternal age, socio-economic status, and other potential covariates. With regards to diabetic patients, who want to fast during Ramadan, one should be aware that medical, nutritional, and physical activity consultation is of prime importance.
To conclude, although studies showed that Ramadan fasting has health protective effects, individuals having any health complications should consult their medical team for fasting during Ramadan. If one is feeling well and don’t have an underlying health condition, it should still be safe to fast during Ramadan.
The key messages are to stay at home, pray from home, be kind, supportive to everyone and to breakfast, share iftar at home or digitally in order to protect self as well as the people dear to us and in this way we fulfill our obligations towards mankind and go closer to God.
This pandemic might be God’s way of reminding humans that there is a force higher up according to whose will the universe turns. It is a time to reflect and realize what we have done with this planet, how tiny we are and how humble we should be. It’s His mercy that we dwell upon.
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Cabo R de and Mattson M P. Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease. N Engl J Med 381;26 nejm.org December 26, 2019.
Lind L. Circulating markers of inflammation and atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis. 2003;169:203–14.
Mindikoglu AAL,Abdulsada MM,Jain A, MinChoi J ,Jalal PK ,Devaraj S ,Mezzari MP ,.Petrosino JF ,Opekun AR, YunJung S . Intermittent fasting from dawn to sunset for 30 consecutive days is associated with anticancer proteomic signature and upregulates key regulatory proteins of glucose and lipid metabolism, circadian clock, DNA repair, cytoskeleton remodeling, immune system and cognitive function in healthy subjects. J Proteomics 217 (2020) 103645.
This post was originally published in April 2020 and has since been updated