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Fasting related diets have recently become all the rage. The most widely acclaimed at the moment is the 5:2 diet (where you eat normally for five days in the week and fast [consume 500 calories for the other two]) though this sits amongst the hundreds of other juice cleanses, detox regimes and intermittent fasting programmes that are currently being marketed to those who want to lose weight – and lead a healthier lifestyle.
When the body is denied food it burns fat so that energy is created and this in turn can lead to weight loss. However, if the body is denied sustenance for too long, it will eventually start to break down our muscle protein for energy – this is not good. The changes observed in our body physically on the outside and felt internally on the inside depend on how long we are fasting for. Diets such as the 5:2 and certain other detoxification cleanses do not last for a prolonged amount of time – the denial of food is temporary and so the benefits of these are high.
In a normal fasting state, our bodily glucose is used up as our main source of energy; once this use has been maximised and exhausted, fat becomes the next source of energy for the body and starts to be broken down. Whilst this is ok, what we do not want to happen is for the body to begin using protein for energy through the breakdown of muscle – this is what is technically known as starvation and what happens in bouts of prolonged fasting. In cases such as the 5:2 diet or in Ramadan for example, this stage is highly unlikely to be reached due to the intermittent nature of the fast in the case of the former, and the daily breaking of the fast in regards to the latter.
It’s not all about food
Fasting during the month of Ramadan is a fundamental aspect of Islam – it is one of the five pillars of the religion and is observed by millions of Muslims throughout the world. The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, meaning that the dates of Ramadan (if put into accordance with the standard calendar) change every year; this year sees those in the UK fasting for around nineteen hours a day. Obligatory fasting has not been prescribed to Muslims for cosmetic reasons – it is not a means to lose weight so that we can fit into that pair of jeans we bought last month. Rather it is a time to reflect; to understand how not to take things for granted, to teach us self-restraint and self-discipline, to take away all outer distractions so that we may get closer to our maker and, if done correctly, to cleanse our bodies of any toxins and impurities – to strive to become as perfect as we were when we were put onto this Earth by Allah.
What happens to our body during Ramadan?
Fasts during Ramadan, wherever you are in the world, last from sunrise to sunset. The energy lost throughout the day from no food or drink can be replaced and accounted for during the pre-sunrise (suhoor) and the pre-sunset (iftar) meals. This prevents the breakdown of body muscle for protein. Whilst we are using glucose for energy whilst we are fasting, following suhoorand iftarwe begin to use fat for energy – which in turn preserves muscle and lowers cholesterol and blood pressure.
Following several days of fasting, increased levels of endorphins (the hormone released during exercise) become apparent in the blood which as a result, give a feeling of less fatigue and a sense of mental and physical wellbeing.
It’s a month long – do it properly
To ensure that our muscles do not breakdown for energy during Ramadan, meals must contain food groups that give us energy – i.e. carbohydrates and fats. Ideally slow energy releasing / complex carbohydrates (for example barley, lentils, wholemeal flour, wheat etc.) and fats. Refined carbohydrates (those that contain sugar and white flour) should try to be avoided.
All of the major food groups should be incorporated into the diet: carbohydrates, fats, fibres, proteins, minerals and vitamins. In fact, the composition of our meals during Ramadan, if done aptly, should be the same during non-fasting months. It is said to avoid caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, coke) as these stimulate increased water loss through excessive urination.
Deep fried foods should be avoided and replaced with baked or shallow fried foods. High sugar and high-fat foods such as cakes, chocolates and Asian mithai should be broached with a lot of caution – instead milk-based sweet treats and dishes like grilled chicken and / or meat should be incorporated into the diet. Potatoes with skin on are also a great energy food.
For mind, body and soul
Remember, the daily fast during Ramadan is to benefit YOU in the long run; you can make it as healthy and as productive as you like. It is a test of will, devotion, and physical and mental strength...if done properly, the rewards – here and in the hereafter – will be bountiful.