London: Ramazan is a month of blessings for Muslims across the globe; a time for spiritual revival and an opportunity to get closer to one’s Creator. Throughout, millions of Muslims practice fasting from sunrise to sunset. But since it is more than merely abstaining from food and water, there is a widespread belief among observers that fasting is known to have a number of health benefits for the human body.
The Express Tribune recently talked to doctors and nutritionists about the benefits of fasting for the human body but they all added that the practice is only beneficial insofar people do not indulge in gluttonous behavior at iftar and adhere to a moderate, balanced diet.
Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal (Rehmatullah aleh)
How is fasting good for your health?
Speaking of the benefits of time-restricted fasting – wherein observers go periods with little or no food – Dr. Mamoona Shafiq, associate professor of physiology at the Islamabad Medical and Dental College, explained that it has multiple benefits for the human body.
“Research has shown that fasting may improve blood sugar control, which could be particularly useful for people who are at risk of diabetes,” she said. “Going on for periods without food may also help lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.”
According to Dr. Shafiq, fasting may also decrease several markers of inflammation and be useful in treating inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis. “If done right, the practice of fasting can also help a person lose weight by limiting the intake of calories and boosting metabolism,” she added.
Zoha Matin, a Karachi-based nutritionist and MSc in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from McGill University also agreed that fasting is beneficial for health. She added that there are many scientific studies that show that going without food for 12 or more hours can promote health and longevity.
“Fasting has been shown to improve insulin resistance, enhance cellular repair, increase metabolism and it may even help prevent cancer,” she said.
Sheikh Ehsan Noor, a certified nutritionist from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) said that fasting is not only mandatory for Muslims but is also practiced in other cultures and religions in different ways. In fact, it has been used by people for thousands of years to heal the body.
Noor cited the example of Hippocrates –the father of modern medicine – who also advocated it as a healing mechanism. “Fasting is good for health because it helps detoxify our bodies. By opting for regular fasts, waste elements are drained out and the intestines are kept healthy,” he explained.
Doctors and nutritionists, therefore, largely agree that fasting is good for health but discipline in what we eat before and after the fasting period is very important in ensuring that.
Iftar: re-energising the body vs gluttony
It’s not uncommon to see people indulging in delicious meals for
iftar. Be it traditional snacks like fried rolls and fritters or parathas and biryani, people make sure to ‘replenish’ their bodies with as much food as they can immediately upon breaking their fast.
But Dr. Shafiq stressed the need to adopt a healthier diet during Ramazan and said that while time-restricted fasting could have various health benefits for individuals, the tradition of eating large quantities of deep fried and oily food – which is almost always devoid of nutritional value – can cause health problem instead.
“People fast throughout the day and suddenly indulge in fried and fatty food. Not only that but they also overeat, believing that eating too much would make up for the fasting period,” she shared.
As a result, many people develop bloating, gaseous distension, gastritis, reflux symptoms and can even experience vomiting. Matin added overeating, especially foods high in fat and sugar – read pakoras, samosas, and sugary drinks – can cause lethargy along with weight gain.
“Excess carbohydrate consumption also leads to increased sleepiness and lethargy after iftar and instead of boosting their metabolism, most people end up gaining weight during Ramazan by overindulging in high-calorie foods.”