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Fasting, Ramadan and Nutrition

Not yet time for Ramadan, but it will come around before you know it! .

Definition of Fasting: Fasting is complete abstinence from food and drink between dawn and dusk. All those ill or frail, pregnant and menstruating women, breast feeding mothers and travellers are exempted. They are required to make the number of days missed at a later date or give a fixed sum in charity.

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As there are numerous health concerns raised regarding the Islamic fasting in Ramadan, with many wondering whether it is really good or bad for your health, I thought maybe it would be good to think about what really happens to the body when we fast.

The changes that occur in the body in response to fasting actually depend on the length of the continuous fast. The body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut has finished absorbing nutrients from the food. In the normal (or fed) state, the body uses glucose which is stored in the liver and muscles as the main source of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is the first to provide energy and the first to be depleted. Once these stores have run out, the body starts using fat stores to provide energy. Small amounts of glucose are also produced through other mechanisms in the liver.

Only with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks, does the body eventually turn to protein for energy. This is known as starvation response and is the body’s way of keeping you alive for as long as possible. It involves protein being released from muscle breakdown and can cause people who starve to become very weak and wasted. As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk there is plenty of opportunity for the faster to replenish energy stores at pre-dawn and dusk meals. During this time there is a gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main source of energy and prevents the breakdown of muscle for protein. Usage of fat for energy aids weight loss, minimal effects on the muscle and in the long term can reduce your cholesterol levels. Weight loss also results in better control of blood pressure and improve your body’s ability to utilise insulin.

After a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins or ‘happy hormones’ appear in the blood resulting in a better level of alertness and an overall feeing of general mental well-being.

However, in order to receive maximum physical and spiritual benefit from fasting it is essential that there is balanced food and fluid intake between fasts. The kidney is very efficient at maintaining the body’s water and salts, such as sodium and potassium, however these can be lost through sweating and have to be replaced. Also to prevent muscle break down, meals must contain adequate levels of energy foods such as carbohydrates and some fats. Hence a balanced diet with adequate quantities of nutrients, salts and water is vital.

Unfortunately, many Muslims find that they are lazy and lethargic during Ramadan and some actually put on weight! This is predominantly due to unhealthy cultural eating practices at the iftaar (dusk meal) and suhoor (dawn meal). In order to find out what you really should be eating to stay healthy and maintain your energy throughout the day and maintain (or lose) weight, stay tuned to my next post! 😀

 

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