Health is the key to happiness, and what we consume directly affects our health. Islam encourages Muslims to ensure that they are mindful of their health. Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: "Take advantage of the good health before illnesses afflict you". He also encouraged Muslims to try their best to take up a healthy living lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular mental and physical exercise and a balance between material and spiritual needs.
The month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to focus on bringing back a balanced and healthy lifestyle in our life. Through fasting we begin to learn how to manage our eating habits, how to improve self-control and discipline. This month requires us to give the stomach a break, and by doing so we are able to break down and expel the accumulated toxins from our body. Fasting is complete abstinence from food and drink between dawn / Sahur (the light meal generally eaten about half an hour to one hour before dawn) and dusk / Iftar (the food eaten immediately after sunset to break the fast).
The physiological changes that occur during a fast
For many people, the key question regarding fasting is whether it is good or bad for our health? The answer to this requires a quick overview of what happens inside the body during fasting.
The changes that occur in the body in response to fasting depend on the length of the continuous fast. Technically the body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finishes absorption of nutrients from the food. In the normal state, body glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles, is the body's main source of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is used up first to provide energy. Later in the fast, once the stores of glucose run out, fat becomes the next store source of energy for the body. Small quantities of glucose are also 'manufactured' through other mechanisms in the liver.
Only with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks does the body eventually turn to protein for energy. This is the technical description of what is commonly known as 'starvation', and it is clearly unhealthy. It involves protein being released from the breakdown of muscle, which is why people who starve look emaciated and become very weak.
As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk, there is ample opportunity to replenish energy stores at pre dawn and dusk meals. This provides a progressive, gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main source of energy, and prevents the breakdown of muscle for protein. The use of fat for energy aids weight loss, preserving the muscles, and in the long run reduces your cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss results in better control of diabetes and reduces blood pressure. A detoxification process also seems to occur, as any toxins stored in the body's fat are dissolved and removed from the body. After a few days of the fast, higher levels of certain hormones appear in the blood (endorphins), resulting in a better level of alertness and an overall feeling of general mental well-being.
Balanced food and fluid intake is important between fasts. The kidney is very efficient at maintaining the body's water and salts, such as sodium and potassium. However, these can be lost through sweating. To prevent muscle breakdown, meals must contain adequate levels of 'energy food', such as carbohydrates and some fat. Hence, a balanced diet with adequate quantities of nutrients, salts and water is vital.
Foods that benefit and foods that harm
The fasts of Ramadan can improve a person's health significantly, but - if the correct diet is not followed - can possibly worsen it! The deciding factor is not the fast itself, but rather what is consumed in the non-fasting hours. To fully benefit from fasting, a person should spare a great deal of thought to the type and quantity of food they will indulge in through the blessed month of Ramadhan. Overeating can not only harm the body but also interfere with a person's spiritual growth during the month.
Muslim families have grown up with a habit of "stock up" a lot of food for the month of Ramadhan, so that more is consumed during this time than in the course of several other months combined. At the end of the day, the presence of this too much food on the table tempts one to overeat and makes up for all one has missed during the daytime or at its worst, the meal sometime finds its way to the garbage as a left over. This problem comes in because Muslim families have failed to differentiate between feasting and fasting. It is therefore worth reflecting on the true objective of fasting which is to experience hunger and to check desire in an attempt to reinforce the soul in piety.
If this is exactly what happens in your home, then better do something as soon as you can because Islam strictly condemns extravagance at any level. Extravagance has no spiritual nor moral relevance in Islam, so especially when it comes to the holy month of Ramadhan. Throwing that bread in the garbage is like abusing Allah's bounty rendered on you, because there are millions unlucky ones craving for that piece of bread. I think if we start thinking along this line then no food will ever be wasted in our homes.
Allah (SWT) says in Holy Quran: "Eat and drink freely: but waste not by excess, for He does not like the wasters." (Surah Al-Araf, 7:31)
The physical body is a gift from Allah (SWT); it is given to humans as an Amanah (in trust) to take care of for a fixed period. How much food is consumed and the choice of food has a direct impact on the physical and spiritual well-being of the person. The food that we consume affects our behaviour and personality. Wholesome, natural and healthy food assists the development of a good personality. Overeating has long been frowned upon in Islam as it is thought to increase worldly appetites and cause sluggishness, thereby 'dulling' the soul, hampering spiritual growth and increasing physical ailments.
Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: "The children of Adam fill no vessel worse than their stomach. Sufficient for him is a few morsels to keep his back straight. If he must eat more, then a third should be for his food, a third for his drink, and a third left for air." (Sunan al-Tirmidhi)
Most of the health problems are likely to arise from inappropriate diet, overeating and insufficient sleep. Human body has regulatory mechanisms that reduce the metabolic rate and ensure efficient utilization of the body's fat reserves in times of hunger. A diet that has less than a normal amount of food but is sufficiently balanced will keep a person healthy and active during the month of Ramadhan. The diet should be simple and not differ too much from one's normal everyday diet. It should contain foods from all the major food groups.
Especially now, when our daily intake is limited to two meals per day, we need to put extra effort into including foods from all the major food groups. Our bodies need at least 40 different nutrients every day to ensure that we grow adequately and maintain good health. Although most foods contain more than one nutrient, no single food provides all the necessary nutrients.
Moreover, foods have benefits that can't be replaced by a pill. It is thus important to eat a wide variety of foods every day, so as to ensure that we get all of these nutrients. The way to ensure variety, and with it a well-balanced diet, is to select foods each day from each of the five food groups.
Even though the thought of sleep may be far more appealing than waking up to force down some food, don't skip breakfast (Sahur). Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Also it is called as "Sunnat-e-Muakkadah (emphasised Sunnah)".
For years, research has shown that breakfast (the breaking of the overnight fast) provides the essential nutrients and energy needed for concentration while keeping hunger symptoms like headaches, fatigue, sleepiness and restlessness at bay. In addition, it also gets our metabolic rates up and going, it is therefore vital to ensure an adequate intake at breakfast time.
In view of the long hours of fasting, we should consume the so-called 'complex carbohydrates' or slow digesting foods at Sahur so that the food lasts longer (about 8 hours) making you less hungry during the day. These complex carbohydrates are found in foods that contain grains and seeds like barley, wheat, oats, millet, semolina, beans, lentils, unpolished rice and etc.
Fibre rich foods are also digested slowly and include bran, cereals, whole wheat, grains and seeds, potatoes with the skin, vegetables such as green beans and almost all fruit, including apricots, prunes, figs, etc.
Foods to avoid are the heavily processed, Fried foods, very spicy foods, fast burning foods that contain refined carbohydrates in the form of sugar, white flour, etc., as well as, of course, too much fatty food (eg cakes, biscuits, chocolates and sweets, such as Indian Mithai).
Drinking of sufficient water and juices between Iftar and sleep to avoid dehydration and for detoxification of the digestive system should be encouraged in fasting individuals. However, the intake of large amounts of caffeine containing beverages should be avoided especially at Sahur. For example, drinking too much tea, coffee and cola will make one pass more urine and inevitably cause the loss of valuable mineral salts that your body would otherwise need during the day. Fruits such as bananas are a good source of potassium, magnesium and carbohydrates. However, bananas can cause constipation and their intake has to be balanced with adequate fibre intake.
Refined carbohydrates or fast digesting foods last for only 3 to 4 hours and may be better taken at Iftar to rapidly restore blood glucose levels. Fast burning foods include foods that contain sugar and white flour. Dates are an excellent source of sugar, fibre, carbohydrates, potassium and magnesium and have been recommended since the days of Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) as a good way of breaking the fast, because Dates will provide a refreshing burst of much needed energy. Fruit juices will also have a similar, revitalizing effect. The meal should remain a meal and not become a feast! Try to minimize the rich, special dishes that traditionally celebrate the fast.
Many of the foods which are mentioned and encouraged are in the Holy Quran, and the Sunnah (the Prophetic traditions) also correspond to modern guidelines on a healthy diet and will help to maintain balanced, healthy meals in Ramadhan. The most commonly consumed foods by Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) were milk, dates, lamb/mutton and oats. Healthy foods mentioned in the Holy Quran are fruit and vegetables, such as olives, onions, cucumber, figs, dates, grapes as well as pulses such as lentils. The encouragement of fish can be seen in the fact that Islamic law spares fish from any specific slaughter requirements, making it easy to incorporate fish which has scales in a meal.
It is also important to follow good time management procedures for Ibada (prayer and other religious activities), sleep, studies, work, and physical activities or exercise. A good balance in the amount of time attributed for each activity will lead to a healthier body and mind in Ramadan.