How healthy is Ramadan for the body? – a nutritional view of Ramadan from an expat in Morocco
“Do you do Ramadan?”, Said asks me.
“No”, I reply.
“You should try”, Said looks at me and waits for my reply. Said is not the first one who asks me if I am fasting during the month of Ramadan. He is also not the first one who tells me “you should try”. Some expats in Marrakech ask me if I fast too. “And why don’t you try”?, is a common question I get. However, my reply is always the same:
“No, I don’t fast. I’m not Muslim and I don’t follow Islam, therefore I don’t do Ramadan”. Some people (expats and Moroccans) in Marrakech seem to get annoyed with my reply, which I don’t understand, and some people still insist I should give fasting a try. However, let me tell you this:
I completely respect the month of Ramadan. I will never go out in the streets of Marrakech to eat or drink during this month. I eat at home, and don’t carry a water bottle with me when I go out. I will wear modest clothes (I always do that anyway, you will never see me wearing shorts and a tank top in Morocco. I respect those expats in Marrakech who tell me they follow Ramadan, but I don’t understand their reason. I come across expats who tell me:
“I do Ramadan to try it and see if I can do it”
“Because it is healthy” (by the way, Moroccans tell me it’s healthy too)
“Because I want to support the Muslims”
I can only shake my head. That’s seriously nonsense! If you tell me, you’ve converted and follow Islam and believe in the Quran, I completely understand why you do Ramadan. If you do it because of spiritual reasons, to study the Quran, to step closer to your God, I completely understand why you do Ramadan. However, if you tell me you’re doing Ramadan for health reasons, or to support Muslims then you’re talking nonsense.
I am pretty sure Muslims don’t need your support during Ramadan. Ramadan is between you and God, so if you don’t believe in God and don’t follow Islam, and have no clue about the Holy Quran, then why follow Ramadan? Muslims don’t need your support here in Morocco. Moroccans are proud people, and they know what they want. They don’t look for something “new and exciting”, they don’t try to belong to a different faith because they are lost and unhappy. They keep strong in their faith, they are rooted and they know their traditions and stay true to themselves (most of them do). Those who keep it real don’t go out at night to smoke and drink alcohol when sunset hits the sky. By the way that is another thing that makes no sense to me. Why fast all day and stay “clean” and then kill it all by going out clubbing and filling the body with junk? That is clearly not healthy for the physical health.
Feast or Famine?
Most people with a bit of common sense knows that depriving the body from food and water for 16 hours a day isn’t healthy for the physical body. Especially when the day ends up with this:
Eating sweets, cakes, dates, and eating more sweet food. In Marrakech many cafes open up at night, and my favourite Gelateria (ice cream shop) has new opening hours during Ramadan – they are open until 4am! Lounge bars and some night clubs are open in the night too. I find it interesting how everyone I’ve spoken too tell me the same – “Ramadan is healthy”.
Basically what happens in Ramadan is a shift between night and day. People become alive, the streets become alive, food become alive in the night time. People sip on coffee at 2am, snack, eat massive amounts of foods and sleep less. This is highly stressful to the body. Our body is designed to live and be alive during the day, to be fuelled with food in the day time, and rest at night when the body works hard to eliminate toxins and repair cells. All of this is thrown out of the window during Ramadan. What’s the point in staying “clean” all day, and all month, only to fill the body with massive amounts of foods at night time? And on top of that you’ll see lots of people who are the first ones to jump into a bar and have a drink right after Ramadan?! It really makes no sense to me. If you do Ramadan for health reasons, you’ve missed the point.
I am not here to judge anyone, but I’m simply expressing my thoughts about what I experience here in Marrakech. I am also giving my point of view from a nutritional side because I am being asked why I don’t do Ramadan.
What happens to your body when you fast for long?
When we deprive the body from food and water for more than 4 hours it increases the cortisol levels in the body which is bad for the system. Furthermore it slows down the metabolism, which is one of the main reasons why many people gain weight during Ramadan. When we deprive the body from food for a long period of time, the body gets confused and begins to break down muscle protein for energy which is unhealthy. Dr Razeen Mahroof from Oxford says that “Ramadan is not necessarily healthy but it’s the spiritual aspect that is emphasised more than the health aspect”.
I completely agree with Dr Razeen Mahroof on this one as much as I agree with the other studies on Ramadan. As a nutritionist I see nothing healthy in fasting over a long period of time. Ramadan fasting deprives the system from energy. Our body is a machine that needs to work and our “Agni” (digestive fire) and metabolism only works properly when we feed it with foods every 3-4 hours. If not, the metabolism slows down and the “Agni” dies out. This is why people who fast often have extremely bad breath, look pale and fatigued. Another problem during Ramadan is insufficient sleep. Many people continue a normal work routine during Ramadan, and stay up all night because it is allowed to eat after sunset. Everyone becomes alive in the night, and it’s not unusual that you receive phone calls at midnight from people asking if you want to come out and have an ice cream or a snack. It leaves very little time for sleep, and when we don’t get enough sleep at night, the cortisol hormones rise which affects the way fat is distributed in the body. It can also create imbalance in the bodily functions.
In the health system of Ayurveda the Pita rises in the night, which means we turn on the fire in our system when we are awake at night. With time this can lead to severe imbalance because the pitta stops functioning properly. Symptoms of too much fire in the system can be inflammation, heart burn, skin rashes, acidity problems, acid reflux, bad breath, tiredness, irregular bowel movements and joint problems. During Ramadan the body only gets energy at night, a time when the body is supposed to slow down, rest and regenerate. This is why some people experience constipation which according to Ayurveda is a clear sign that the body isn’t healthy because it’s too dry and the digestive fire isn’t working.
A study in Turkey shows that 32 males who worked in construction during Ramadan experienced severe health problems and dehydration due to their hard physical labour in the fasting hours. This comes as no surprise and I am often concerned about the construction workers in Marrakech who work hard in 38-41 degrees heat during the long fasting hours. The other day when I passed by a building under construction it was clear to see that the workers were weak, tired and to the point of exhaustion. There is nothing healthy about long hours of fasting when the body is exposed to heat, direct sun and hard physical labour. In my opinion it should be forbidden to fast under such conditions. It’s simply not human, and far from natural to stay away from water 16-18 hours a day in extreme heat. Furthermore dehydration causes tremendous stress on the kidneys, which can be damaging to the health. It also causes head aches and migraine, another imbalance that is directly related to dehydration.
Slow cognitive function
In a study done in the The United Arab Emirates it shows that there is a big increase in road accidents during the month of Ramadan compared to other months. This is related to the cognitive function which decreases during the long fasting hours. The whole system generally slows down during Ramadan and the body often turns week during the day which is clear to see when you pass by people in their shops in Marrakech or talk to someone on the phone who is fasting during Ramadan. They often sound blurry, lack energy and are out of focus.
Moroccan Dr Muhammad Alabdooni, says there is no scientific proof that Ramadan fasting is physiologically beneficial. He explains that fasting has some negative effects on health such as headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, dehydration, constipation and discomfort.
However, he says Ramadan may benefit psychological and emotional health:
“Positive aspects of fasting in Ramadan are related to relaxation that happens due to worship, which increases in the holy month. These worship practices give a feeling of psychological and physical relaxation.”
I completely understand that people do Ramadan for spiritual reasons, and it would make so much more sense to me if people would tell me that this is the main reason why they do Ramadan. However, until now, the only reply I get from Moroccans and expats in Morocco is: “because it’s healthy or because I want to try it/support. I am not saying that is wrong. At the end of the day we have to do what feels good to us as individuals.
But let’s not be fooled because in reality Ramadan is a time for spiritual growth, reflection and appreciating God. It is clearly not healthy to the physical body and it is certainly not a month to overeat, and pump the body with cholesterol rich foods. It is not a month to party at night or to proof “you can do it” or fast to support. Ramadan is you and God, that’s all. And if you tell me this is why you do Ramadan, then I think it’s great because it shows that you know and understand what Ramadan is about. It’s your relationship between you and God, and stepping closer to God.
If you strive to get closer to your God and to improve your relationship with God, that’s great. To step closer to God one needs to take care of the body, mind and health. You must develop a “clean life” from the inside out, and to be a true and honest person., not only during Ramadan but all year round. Telling me Ramadan fasting is healthy is like telling someone to eat 50 cookies a day when they want to loose weight! If you do Ramadan for health reasons you’ve misunderstood something, but if you do it for a higher spiritual purpose, and to improve your relationship with God, give blessings, share, and clean your soul from impurities on a deeper level, then you’re a step closer to understanding what Ramadan is about.
Ramadan is also a time to celebrate the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammed, it’s a time to reconnect with faith and a time to be more aware of God. Many cultures believe that when the mind is restricted from foods during a fast, you become more aware of yourself, your life and God.
How healthy is Ramadan for the physical health?
Ramadan is a time of peace and calm, and its’ a time to think of your relationship with God. It’s time to improve your spiritual health but not your physical health!
Stay real and know what you’re doing and why. Live healthy and happy, always.
With love, light and gratitude, and Ramadan Mubarak to all taking part this year,