The Benefits of Fasting
Coming up, at the end of May is Ramadan, so it’s time for the annual Ramadan assembly! But, this year we wanted to focus more on the actual fasting experience and the benefits it has on your body.
Everyone who fasts has experienced people asking the classic questions ‘not even water?!’ and ‘so you don’t eat at all for 30 days?’; the answers to both are no! A fast in Ramadan includes waking up before the morning prayer of Fajr and eating until then, then abstaining from all food and drink and breaking your fast at the end of the same day, not 30 days later. Obviously, we don’t eat nothing at all for an entire month – the idea isn’t for us all to starve!
The morning meal has many names: it’s commonly referred to as either Suhoor, or Sehri. You eat this meal before the sun rises, but specifically before Fajr, so that means in summer time this meal could be at times like 2am. To keep you going through the day people tend to eat very filling meals here, such as porridge, toast and lots of protein! You also need to drink a lot of water to keep you going through the summer days, but there is a limit to how much you can drink before your stomach actually starts to hurt!
Then, depending on the day, people tend to do different activities to get through the fast, here’s a video on the different types of people, and their typical activities during the day!
Finally, at the end of the day is the evening meal, otherwise known as Iftar. It’s customary to open the fast with a date, as it’s widely recorded that this is what Prophet Muhammad* did.
Studies have been carried out to show that dates have amazing health benefits too. They’re really good sources of a lot of essential vitamins and minerals, they lower your blood pressure, are good for weight loss, and reduce your risk of heart disease, and even some types of cancer!
During the summer months, Iftar could be as late as 10pm, making the fast itself almost 20 hours long! Often, people prepare for this by creating extravagant meals; with many courses and many different options available, but as hungry as you felt during the day, many people find that they actually can’t eat a lot, as you actually get quite full very quickly!
At the beginning of Ramadan you may initially notice things like a few more spots appearing on your face, and bloating when you finish the fast, however, as you continue through the month, all of these begin to disappear and your skin can drastically improve, and this effect will even continue to when you stop fasting. Your whole body would become overall healthier as your digestive system uses the opportunity to detoxify from harmful substances in food, water and the environment.
There have also been studies carried out on the effect of fasting on your body; for example, the Annals of Nutritional Metabolism found that fasting lowered total cholesterol levels by 38% and increased ‘good cholesterol’ levels by 14.3%, and this actually ends up protecting you from various heart diseases and even stroke.
Some people try to use Ramadan as an opportunity to lose weight by not eating during the day, but then binge eating at night, but this is really unhealthy for you and can have the opposite effect and make you put on weight. However, if you try to maintain your usual eating habits, this isn’t unhealthy and actually promotes fat breakdown.
There are other ways in which fasting can help someone lose weight, because as your body is starting to receive less natural sugars for energy, your body will begin to break down your fat stores for energy. And, not only can fasting improve your health, but it can even prevent certain autoimmune diseases. It’s been proven that fasting can almost entirely reboot your immune system, because new white blood cells are created, and even insulin sensitivity increases, so this may be able to reduce the risk of diabetes in younger people.
Studies have also shown that fasting is one of only two things that can regenerate brain cells (the other being exercise). This can lead to better brain function and an improved memory, or even reduced stress levels. And, amazingly, in 2013 the magazine ‘Scientific American’ reported a study which showed that reducing intake extended the lifespan of many animals by a third and reduced the risks of diseases linked to old age. As a result, several modern diets mimic fasting, such as the 5:2 diet.
However, the benefits aren’t only physical and many people claim to feel mental benefits. For example, as you aren’t allowed to be intoxicated during the fast, this means people who are, for example, addicted to smoking, are forced to cut-down and ultimately this provides self-restraint and can lead to you overcoming your addictions.
It’s also a common misconception that eating and drinking are the only things that you have to restrain from doing during your fast, but, there are actually many other ways your fast could be broken early. Some are more obvious, such as smoking like we mentioned, but other things may come as a surprise to some people; for example, while fasting, you are in the most holy state, so you are encouraged to restrain from lying, stealing, gossiping and even looking at things that may be considered ‘haram’.
Here’s another comedic video about how people behave in Ramadan
In the Qur’an it says ‘O you who believe fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you can learn Taqwa’. [2:183] Taqwa is most commonly translated as either God-consciousness or piety, and many people use Ramadan as an opportunity to, in a sense, let go of material things such as food and learn more about their religion. Many people go to night prayers in the mosque, known as tarawih, in which a chapter of the Quran is read each night, so all thirty are covered over the month.
Also, not all Muslims are required to fast. Generally, Muslims are told that once you hit puberty you’re required to keep all the fasts in the month, and even a lot of children fast before hitting puberty so they know what to expect when the time comes. But, as we said, the aim of this isn’t to make you suffer, so there are exceptions. For example, if you have to take medicine during the day, or are pregnant, or you’re very unwell and need to eat, or even if you’re just too elderly and weak to give up food and drink during the day, then of course it’s not a requirement to fast. Also, women are not allowed to fast while on their period.
If people do end up missing a fast for any of those reasons, they make them up later in the year, so that in total all 29 or 30 fasts have been done, but there is no requirement for when these need to be done, so a lot of people like to do them in winter, when the fasts can be as short as 11 hours, which may still sound like a lot, but at least it’s less than 20! If you’re chronically ill or elderly it’s also acceptable to donate to charity instead, but this is really only if you’re seriously unable, not just because you have a slight cold!
One of the biggest misconceptions is that Muslims hate Ramadan and it’s a time that Muslims dread, but in most cases, this isn’t true. Ramadan is actually a time to for you to realise how privileged you are; some people don’t have any choice but to have one meal a day, and they won’t have the option of what that meal would be. Ramadan is a time for giving – in many Muslim countries, iftar is provided at the mosques for anyone who can’t afford it for themselves, and the focus on charity increases during this month, so everyone, regardless of their background, is rewarded for their actions in Ramadan. Iftar is also regarded as a community event, so big parties are common, which gives Ramadan a strong social aspect too.
Although studies show the health benefits of fasting, the reason Muslims fast is not to improve their health but because we believe that God has commanded us to. We know that all prophets* also fasted – we all know about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert that Lent emulates – and the real reason is to increase our spirituality and improve our self-control, breaking any addictions and dependencies we might have. The added bonus of health benefits, though they’ve only been discovered in the last few years, does not come as a surprise to Muslims, as we know that if God has commanded something it can only be for our benefit.
*peace be upon him
Written by Sana Zuberi and Hana Khan in 2017