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Sami Rahman

The surprising health benefits of fasting

Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 May, 2018

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Ramadan series: It was ordained upon Muslims over 1400 years ago but now scientists are agreeing that fasting can help prevent problems such as high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
It was ordained upon Muslims over 1400 years ago but now scientists are agreeing that fasting can help prevent health problems such as high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.

This month over one billion Muslims across the world will begin fasting for Ramadan.

Their daylight hours will be spent without any food, water, smoking and sex. Last year, fasting hours around the world ranged between 9 and 21 hours. This year, fasting hours will range between 9 and 19 hours – with fasting more difficult for those living in countries in the far north, where the sun can remain in the sky almost all day.

Some might wince at the thought of not having access to even a glass of water during the hot, sweltering days but research has found that there are many health benefits that come from fasting.

As well as being a spiritual detox, where Muslims give up materialistic pursuits, arguments and sexual relations in a bid to become closer to God and gain taqwa (God-consciousness), fasting can help detox our bodies, improve our health and even lose weight.

The health benefits

Fasting, unlike starving oneself, can help you lose weight safely.

Eating less meals has been found to help the body shed fat and studies show drinking less fluid for a month has no negative effect on health.

Studies have also found those taking part in Ramadan had lower levels of cholesterol – a leading cause of heart diseases.

Studies have also found those taking part in Ramadan had lower levels of cholesterol – a leading cause of heart diseases

Through fasting, the body's main energy source – glycogen – is turned off. Glycogen is usually created through the consumption of carbs and without it the body must turn to fat for burning energy. This can help aid weight loss, which leads to lower cholesterol and reduced blood pressure.

Research has also found that fasting for just three days could have a positive impact on the immune system. They discovered that fasting led to an influx of new white blood cells, which strengthens the immune system.

An ancient diet, with a modern twist

In the last five years, the 5:2 diet has become immensely popular but what you many not know is that it is inspired by the Islamic practice of fasting.

Also known as the fasting diet, it proposes a way to incorporate fasting in our lives all year round. The premise is that you eat normally for five days of the week and for two days you limit your food intake to just 600-500 calories a day.

This follows the Sunnah (Prophetic way of life) where Muslims are encouraged to fast every Monday and Thursday, so it becomes a regular habit.

In the book The Fast Diet, written by Dr Michael Mosley, it also says that: "There is nothing else you can do to your body that is as powerful as fasting."

There is nothing else you can do to your body that is as powerful as fasting

Beware of overindulgence

Although there are numerous benefits of fasting, if not followed properly it can actually have a negative impact on our health. This is why you may hear some people jokingly say that they put on more weight during the month of Ramadan.

The main culprit of this is over-indulgence during iftar (breaking of the fast).

Many households, especially those with large families, will prepare elaborate and epic feasts leading to overeating and poor diet. On the menu you are likely find oil laden samosas, pakoras and carb filled rice and meat dishes.

This can be easily avoided by planning ahead of time: meal plan and pick light, yet nutritious meals that can keep you feeling fuller for longer, such as lentils, chickpeas, leafy greens, nuts and dates.

What about exercise?

Strenuous exercise isn't advised when fasting as it can dehydrate you, but light physical activity is still encouraged.

Something as simple as a long walk to burn fat and kill time can be counted as exercise, not to mention the late night prayers, which many Muslims take part in at their local mosque.

In fact, many people may say that they engage in more exercise during this month.

Kick out bad habits

As well as warding off diseases and illnesses fasting can help you kick those bad habits. Whether it's a sugar dependence or a smoking addiction, by restricting yourself from these vices during the day, you can slowly learn to cut them out for good.

The short evening hours will mean that there is less time to indulge in a cigarette or a sweet dessert. Habits are also thought to take around 30 days to form, so by the end of Ramadan it should become easier to cut down or cut out your vice.

There are many health benefits of fasting, but as with any other diet or lifestyle choice it's important to be moderate.

Those who do fast will only reap the benefits if they continue to follow a health and varied diet. Spending a month consuming oily, rich food will only make fasting during the day much harder and can lead to weight gain, higher cholesterol and bad habits.


The New Arab's Ramadan Series: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more on Ramadan 2018:

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