Eat, Fast and Live Longer

Flicking through different channels last night I was intrigued to watch Michael Moseley’s documentary on BBC 2 called Eat, Fast and Live Longer for two reasons. First, I love any programme on food, whether it’s cooking shows, Come Dine With Me or documentaries about food. But more importantly, having been fasting for Ramadan for the last 20 days or so, I really wanted to know what (if any) were the health benefits of fasting.

The crux of the documentary was that by regularly fasting (reducing our calorie intake by significant amounts) we can live a healthier and possibly longer life. Doing so reduces our risk of age related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and possibly even mental illnesses such as memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

If you’re interested in the science behind this, it’s because fasting suppresses a growth hormone in our body (IGF-1) and when that happens, our body’s cells get a chance to heal and strengthen themselves rather than constantly being in ‘go-go’ mode to multiply and increase. (I only took biology till grade 8, and this is my understanding of what was explained, so bear with me). The bad news for those who eat a lot of protein, mainly responsible for this growth hormone, is that their bodies never get the chance to go into this repair and protect mode. An apt analogy given was that of driving your car non-stop without ever taking it to the mechanic’s. It’s bound to break down at some point.

As proof of the benefits of reduced food intake, the show interviewed Fauja Singh, believed to be the world’s oldest marathon runner at 101 years of age (an amazing achievement in and of itself)! The secret to his remarkable health was revealed to be small portions of food, what his trainer referred to as ‘kid portions’.

So where does this leave those of us who are fasting in Ramadan?

A few lessons we need to remind ourselves of, which incidentally are also supported by the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) example:

1. Ramadan is about fasting not feasting.

The benefits of fasting are negated if we gorge at iftaar and make up for any calorie intake we may have reduced during the day (of course, those with health problems etc need to evaluate their individual situations).

There are many Prophetic examples pertaining to this. According to a Hadith, “Eat less you will be healthier.”

And also, “Nothing is worse than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be: one-third for his food, one-third for his liquids, and one-third for his breath.” (Tarmazi, ibn Majah and Hakim)

2. Lay off the pakoras!

Have a healthy balanced meal at iftaar, but try to avoid the heavy fried stuff. At least make it an occasional treat rather than a daily essential. The common feeling in our desi families is that iftaar is not complete without something fried, be it pakoras, samosas, kachoris or jalebis.

I am as guilty of this as the next person. Having resolutely avoided fried stuff for the first 2 weeks or so, Asim and I made pakoras for guests last weekend. And voila, since then we’ve been making them everyday because they’re so addictive. But after watching the programme last night, we’ve vowed off them….perhaps we’ll indulge once or twice ;)

3. Fast regularly

The health benefits of fasting wear off if it is not done regularly. Michael Moseley took up fasting 2 days a week. After 5 weeks of doing so, his blood tests revealed reduction in cholesterol, glucose, IGF-1 etc.

We of course know from the Prophet’s example that he used to fast at least 2 days a week (in traditions this is said to be generally Mondays and Thursdays). We as Muslims seek to follow his example for spiritual reasons, but it is heartening to note that it is supported by scientifically proven health benefits too.

Preparing for Ramadan!

Not having fasted for the last two years because of pregnancy and nursing, I have to admit I was nervous about fasting this year. For one, the fasts will be incredibly long. Sunrise to sunset (roughly from 3am to 9pm) would be 18 hours. My second concern was not having properly participated in Ramadan for the last two years, I may have lost my ‘Ramadan spirit’.

So in search of some motivation and inspiration, this Friday I attended an event in London called ‘Your Best Ramadan Yet’ organised by City Circle. The event featured a talk by Shaikh Haytham Tamim of Uttruj Foundation, followed by practical fasting and health related advice by two medical doctors.

While for some the talk may have lacked the ‘wow’ factor, I got from it exactly what I was looking for.

The main point which the Shaikh drilled into the audience was about the purpose of fasting. Why do we fast? According to him, the abstention from our desires is a prerequisite to connecting with our spirituality. Or in other words, it is only when we silence the constant ‘I want this, I need that’ that we can connect with God.

This is the shared link between salah (prayer), haj and fasting. Through all these acts of worship, we try to create a space for ourselves (physically and mentally), where we can take refuge from the onslaught of our desires, the constant consumerism and media messaging telling us to indulge ourselves in this and that. Although this may sound like an obvious point but a lot of us forget this during our ritual prayers and while fasting. Ramadan is about the victory of the spiritual self over the material one, ultimately restoring the balance between the two.

Inspired by the talk, I vowed to keep my ‘wants’ in check, whether these are for buying things, cravings for junk food or never being satisfied with anything in life. Instead of always wanting and whining, I want to create sabr (patience) and contentment. In trying to live this ideal, I’m finding out how difficult it is.  Take a very small example: I decided to gradually cut down my calorie intake in the lead up to Ramadan. I’m ashamed to report that one day spent at the mall was enough to throw all my good intentions out the window. But I’ll persevere.

Another point raised during the talk which I really appreciated was that we should never forget the power of the mind and how resilient our bodies are. A lot of us have been grumbling about how difficult this coming Ramadan would be. But we forget that if we enter something with a negative perception and anticipation, we will most likely find the experience to be negative. However, if we create a positive mindset and send positive signals to our body, we may radically shift our experience. Positive thinking- feeling hopeful and excited about something- goes a long way in shaping our actual experience.

Finally, being a woman and a mother I also appreciated the acknowledgment on the part of the speaker that sometimes (especially in traditional families and cultures) Ramadan for women amounts to preparing and cooking food all day and clearing up at night while the men go for taraweeh prayers. We really need to take our focus away from this attitude of ‘feasting’ at iftaars and also share the responsibilities with women. He went so far as to say that during the last ten days of Ramadan (considered to be a special time of quiet reflection and prayer) women should not cook at all and families should have take aways. He may have been exaggerating his stance just to drive home the point that women should also focus on their spirituality.

The challenge for me to is to find quiet time for myself when my whole day is consumed with childcare responsibilities and in keeping my super curious 16 month old entertained and out of trouble. The only quiet time I have is the two hours of his nap during the afternoon. Generally I spend this time in mindless pursuits like facebooking and watching tv, or doing essential stuff like cooking or showering. I tend to shy away from any activity that may require me to use my grey cells. I realise that this is an excuse to be lazy.

I hope in Ramadan I can counter this attitude that ‘my day is not mine’ and take control of my time. Instead of forcing my baby to fit into my routine or being totally driven by his, I need to find a balance. For example, while he may not allow me to use my laptop (he wants it himself), I could listen to audiobooks or recitation of the Quran in the background while I perform other tasks. If you have any advice or tips to share with me on how I can achieve this balance, please do share!

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!



Ramadan and Work

I posted this on my work blog and people found it really useful. The target audience are mainly non-Muslims.

Muslims all over the world are fasting these days in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Muslims follow the lunar calendar and it is for that reason that Ramadan is not at the same time each year. Fasting is not unique to Islam, it is found in Judaism (on the Day of Atonement) and is practiced during Lent by Christians. It is also common in many non-Abrahamic faiths as well.

Muslims have a meal in the morning before the dawn breaks and begin fasting when the crack of dawn appears, which is as early as 3:30am (in UK) for the first few days of Ramadan. The fast ends as the sunset begins. Muslims offer short prayers during the day and also attend special congregational prayers in the evening which are normally held at fixed times. Fasting demands refraining from not only food, drink, and intimacy but also form vain talk, lying, backbiting, slander, tale-carrying and the like.
All Muslims are expected to fast except children, unhealthy adults (mentally or physically), adults travelling long distances, and women who are menstruating, in post-childbirth care, pregnant or breast-feeding.

Fasting at Work:
In pressured business environments, people who are fasting often work exceptionally hard in the month of Ramadan, ensuring that business and client needs are met in addition to their daily pre and post working obligations. Naturally, there is a need to maintain a sensible work/life balance.

Also the unusual sleeping pattern demands a flexible working pattern for some. Flexible hours have been a success in some Service units as employees can start early and leave early, working the same number of hours. Individuals who are fasting also do not take many of the usual daily breaks for eating and drinking during Ramadan.

So, if someone in your team is fasting, it is advised to discuss and agree on a working pattern for the month.

If you have any queries regarding the month of Ramadan, please feel free to contact the Accenture Muslim Interest Group.

Ramadan Mubarak.


إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلاَفِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاء مِن مَّاء فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الأرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ دَآبَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخِّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاء وَالأَرْضِ لآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ

“Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which God Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.” (2:164)