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.