Ask An Adult: How Do I Stay Healthy When I’m Fasting For Ramadan?

With Ramadan just around the corner, we separate the fact from the fiction when it comes to fastingIllustration by Neda Hajmomeni

Ask An Adult: How Do I Stay Healthy When I'm Fasting For Ramadan?

by Layla Haidrani |
Published on

Who hasn’t raided the entire contents of their fridge come 3am? Or helped themselves to a snack post-midnight, with half-hearted promises to be a healthier you tomorrow? I’d wager it’s not just me. And it won’t just be your drunk self chomping through an entire three-course meal in the small hours after a night out if Ramadan is anything to go by.

From 26 May, Muslims will abstain from food and drink during daylight hours - yep, you can’t even glug humble h2O – and eat only between sunset and dawn. Lasting for around 30 days, it’s meant to be an exercise in self-control. But as we’re constantly bombarded with warnings about the dangers of all-day fasts and eating late into the night, can abstaining for food for up to 13 hours at a pop actually do more harm than good?

It’s not exactly hard to see why it’s such a grey area. As intermittent fasting and the 5:2 diet has surged in popularity in recent years, with celebrities claiming to use it to lose weight, it’s seemingly impossible to sort the pseudoscience from the legit.

Can fasting really add years to your life, even going as far to restore your immune system, or will it damage your body’s organs? And is going into starvation mode an actual thing I need to watch out for?

And while I’m usually slumped in bed, fantasising in painstaking detail about my next meal, some athletes have actually won matches despite forgoing food. Are they running on some kind of super power or does fasting actually help?

It’s even more bewildering when studies offer conflicting advice - one found fasting could crash your metabolismwhile another found it helped to ease toxic effects of chemotherapy.

Considering that even medical experts can’t seem to make up their minds, how healthy is it then to go for hours at a time without eating and drinking? After all, it’s hard to see yourself as the pillar of clean living when your greed levels could vie Veruca Salt come sunset.

So… is it safe?

With that in mind, I spoke to Linia Patel, freelance dietitian and a British Dietetic Association spokesperson. She says there’s a ‘big myth that fasting is unsafe. It’s a good thing for us to adopt on some level as there are benefits gained to giving your body a break from eating now and again. The environment we live in and the food we have access to encourages us to snack as everything is snack sized.’ I see what she means – I usually have good intentions about splitting a sharing bag of popcorn but find myself half an hour in, picking the kernels off my lap.

Patel points to the changing evidence over the last few years: ‘If you’d asked me five or ten years ago, I would have said fasting slowed down your metabolism. However, now we’re seeing that doing some sort of fasting might be good for insulin control. When you look at a lot of chronic diseases like diabetes, they’re all linked to insulin so controlling your insulin intake is a way of preventing disease long-term. Some studies have also shown that intermittent fasting is useful for anti-ageing.’

What foods can be eaten to give energy throughout the day?

I don’t know about you but if I haven’t eaten in a while, I start to feel like Lord Voldemort desperate to get out of Professor Quirrell’s turban. Although it’s recommended to eat before dawn, my laziness always trumps - something I always regret as my belly rumbles at mid-morning meetings. This, according to Patel, is where I’m going wrong. She advises me to look for something that’s balanced in the early hours. Even if you have a piece of wholegrain toast, add some nut butter or an egg so you’re not just having toast and butter, you’re having some carbohydrates, protein and some fruit and vegetables. Having a banana, Greek yoghurt or fruit and oats with a handful of nuts all counts as a balanced meal.’

Kawther Hashem, a public health nutritionist and researcher for Consensus Action on Salt and Health and Action on Sugar, agrees. ‘Don’t skip the pre-dawn meal. It should be filling and provide energy for the fasting hours ahead so it’s an important one not to miss out on. Try to make sure that the foods you eat are based on complex carbohydrates and high fibre foods. These foods will help to release energy slowly during the long hours of fasting and hopefully make you feel fuller for longer.’

She recommends eggs, packed with protein to stave off hunger and whole grain breads such as pitta bread, naan or toast as these provide fibre. ‘Complex carbohydrate foods include barley, wheat, oats. Fibre-rich foods are also digested slowly and include bran, cereals, whole wheat and almost all fruit, including apricots, prunes and figs.’

What are the dangers?

As Ramadan has fallen in the summer months for the last few years, it’s no wonder that you could find yourself dehydrated? To combat this, Hashem recommends drinking as many glasses of water as you can throughout the night and before dawn.

And hydrating yourself isn’t the only thing to watch out for. Most people fasting – whether during Ramadan or not - can agree that when famished for hours, any food will do - even that dodgy half-eaten sarnie that no one on a ‘normal’ day would touch. That’s pretty much me all of Ramadan. No wonder then I don’t give much thought to what I put in my mouth when I break my fast. Unsurprisingly, Hashem warns against this. ‘It’s important to be eating nutrient-dense foods when you break your fast and not with fatty and sugary foods that can encourage excess-energy intake. ‘Avoid processed and fried foods such as fried chicken. Base your meals on complex carbohydrates and fibre rich foods. Although processed foods can be convenient, they usually contain high levels of fat, salt and sugar, everything we need to be limiting in our diet.’

So…can you lose weight on it?

It's not surprising that many people assume fasting is a quick fix to weight loss – non-Muslim friends always get that a flashbulb moment when I mention it. After all, it’s not exactly like you can dip into the office biscuit tin at any given moment. Patel, however, frowns at this, saying a lot of people who do this will have resorted to a low-calorie diet which says is the ‘worst thing for metabolic rate. Even with intermittent fasting, you have a period where you’re feeding yourself properly so you’re preserving muscle mass than a period of not eating.’

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

Ask An Adult: Is Soya Really Fucking With Our Hormones?

Sugar Crashes And Nicotine Withdrawal: No Wonder #RamadanProblems Has Gone Viral

Ask An Adult: What's The Difference Between An Intolerance And An Allergy And How Do I Know Which Is Which?

**Follow Layla on Twitter @layla_haidrani **

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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