Why fasting for Ramadan is (probably) good for your health

    6 July 2016

    Ramadan ends today. For me, like for other Muslims, it has been a tough month. Abstaining for about 19 hours without food and water and trying to keep your cool at the same time is a tall order.

    A typical day starts at 2am with breakfast and lots of water. You go back to sleep and wake up a few hours later for work — then, of course, the real challenge begins.

    The aim is to go about your normal routine and be calm, polite and productive while fighting the battle between your stomach, throat and brain.

    There is no morning espresso to perk you up, and no Haribo sweets to prevent an afternoon energy slump.

    The finale comes at around 9.30pm in the form of the meal to break the fast, commonly fried foods like samosas, before the cycle is repeated.

    The primary aim is improving one’s relationship with God. But it is some consolation to know that Ramadan appears to provide health benefits as well.

    As you might expect, the month-long fast leads to weight loss. A study published in the Journal of Pakistan Medical Association found average weight loss to be 1.24 kg, with participants in West Asia and Africa losing 1.24kg and Europeans shedding only 0.64kg.

    Another study, in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, found ‘significant reductions’ in blood pressure.

    These days, with the 5:2 diet, fasting is all the rage. Among its many purported benefits it is thought that it may protect against cancer and even decelerate the ageing process.

    Dr Sara Kayat, a GP who works for medical helpline service Dr Morton’s, said that, like the 5:2 diet, the Ramadan fast reduces our fat rather than our muscle.

    She tells me: ‘When we starve ourselves our body, which normally uses glucose from our diet for energy, must turn to our fat stores, which consequently leads to weight loss.

    ‘During a more prolonged period of starvation, it will feast on the protein stores present in our muscles, breaking them down and weakening us.

    ‘Over the month of Ramadan fasts only last from dawn to dusk, so the body often utilises fat stores, but doesn’t resort to protein consumption for energy.’

    However, according to Dr Kayat, fasting during Ramadan brings health risks too.

    If you don’t drink enough water, she says, you risk ‘headaches, constipation, dizziness, and fainting’. The risk is higher on hot days.

    Those used to having their meals at regular times can, she says, find the change stressful, ‘which in itself can lead to mental and physical fatigue’. (Bear in mind that if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or in ill health you are exempt from the fast, as are children and elderly people taking medication.)

    So Ramadan is not exactly a one-month health retreat. But then that’s not the idea. It’s a time when Muslims hope to become spiritually invigorated and more self-disciplined. That means, for once, resisting all temptations for Oreo cookies or a slab of cake. For me, a recovering chocaholic, that is quite a feat. I hope Ramadan brings me closer to God — but at least it helps my waistline too.