The Health Benefits of Fasting

Although the primary purpose of fasting is ‘so that you may develop taqwā’, it carries health benefits as well. The obvious is weight loss, for thirty days a whole meal and a snack or two are taken away from our daily food intake. This is equivalent to about 1,000 calories per day, 30,000 calories in a month, roughly the amount needed to burn off eight pounds (3kg). Fasting brings about a complete physiological change, giving rest for the digestive tract and the central nervous system. The trouble is what we miss during fasting we often more than make up for at iftār. Iftār is no longer a glass of water and some dates, it has become a sumptuous festival which is incomplete without several courses, including fried snacks, cooked meats and juices of the most exotic fruits. This kind of iftār diminishes the health benefits of fasting, for which the rule is simplicity and moderation. Iftār, and indeed suhūr, should consist of meals low in fat and high in carbohydrates, to sustain one for worship and help to trim the waistline. Also increase vegetables and lower the meat consumption (which sadly goes up in Ramaḍan, as one can see from the long lines at the ḥalāl butchers).

Some people have a large meal at suhūr, usually fat-rich, such as bread fried in butter, with the hope that it will keep them going throughout the day. The problem with this strategy is that the fat is absorbed by the blood and safely stored in fat deposits around the body. As the day passes, the body first uses the carbohydrates and as soon as the body senses an ‘impending starvation’, it slows down the metabolism and conserves energy by functioning on fewer calories. This natural ‘fuel efficiency mode’ makes it harder for you to lose weight. Only a small portion of the fat consumed at breakfast will be used, the rest becomes flab!

If you want to really benefit from the fast then try this strategy at iftār: open the fast with dates and water or juice and eat slowly. It has been shown that it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to fully signal to the brain that the body is full. This is why quickly wolfing down a meal in a few minutes leads to over-eating. Then pray maghrib (and awwabīn) before going back to eat a moderate portion of your evening meal. You’ll eat much less, inshAllāh, and will be protected from excessive lethargy during the evening’s devotion which should include tarāwīḥ and tahajjud. Follow the other sunnahs too: eating slowly, taking small bites, chewing well and thanking Allāh for the food.

Fasting in the month of Ramaḍan is a great blessing for the overweight and can be used as a way to lose weight healthily. Nibbling biscuits and chocolate between meals are amongst the two main reasons for obesity – by fasting, one easily rids oneself of such compulsions. In fact, the practice of fasting should really help all of us to develop the good habits of moderation, simplicity and attentiveness, which will ensure that we do not over indulge in eating. As Allāh, Most High, says:

﴾Eat and drink but do not squander. Indeed, Allāh does not love the squanderers[1]﴿.

Another practice which not only earns us spiritual reward but also ensures we keep fit and healthy in Ramaḍan is tarāwīḥ (additional congregational prayers after ʿishā’). This is both an important social gathering in the masjid and an illuminating opportunity to allow the Glorious Qur’ān to penetrate the heart. This is the longest form of congregational worship lasting well over an hour depending on the speed of the imām’s recitation. The repeated cycles of sitting and standing (twenty for tarāwīḥ itself and another nine for the farḍ ʿishā’,

[1] Sūrah al-ʿArāf (Q7:31).

sunnah and congregational witr prayers) is equivalent to walking a good three miles. According to Dr. Shahid Ather (Professor of Medicine, Indiana University, USA), 20 rakʿahs of tarāwīḥ burns 200 calories and is considered a mild form of exercise.