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The Crossroads of Faith and Health: Ramadan and Intermittent Fasting

March 18, 2024
Family meal. Photo credit: Edwin Tan/Getty Images

In March 2024, almost two billion Muslims take to fasting – one of the five pillars of Islam – during the Holy Month.

Various people follow the dietary approach of intermittent fasting, and now Muslims are following the same diet, but for Ramadan.

Intermittent fasting means having a controlled schedule where a person abstains from food and drink for a number of hours. Nonetheless, they allow themselves to eat during a limited time window, which ultimately leads to various health benefits observed across cultures and throughout history.

One known intermittent fasting plan is known as the 5:2 approach. It entails eating regularly for five days of the week and eating less than a 600-calorie meal for the remainder of the week. Another approach, which is similar to Muslims’ Ramadan, is only eating for eight or six hours, and fasting for the rest of the day. Another way is the alternate-day fasting method, where individuals alternate between fasting and eating days.

This diet rose to fame for its facilitation of weight loss and weight management in 2012, when Dr. Michael Mosley discussed it in his documentary, ‘Eat Fast, Live Longer,’ and his book, ‘The Fast Diet.’

It was not long before it became highly popular and more people started going on the diet on due to its various benefits. Meanwhile, Muslims have been fasting for 1445 years.

The vast benefits of intermittent fasting

The benefits of intermittent fasting are widely studied; they include both physical and mental health improvements. The most famous and attractive benefit to people is weight loss.

Intermittent fasting works on the basis that when a person eats less, the body taps into fat reserves to find energy, according to UC Davis Health, a health center in Sacramento. Carbohydrates, rich in glucose, usually provide energy; however, when there’s a shortage of glucose, the body starts burning fat, thus facilitating weight loss.

Other benefits of intermittent fasting include enhancing insulin sensitivity, which means the body becomes trained to use glucose efficiently. When there is no glucose or energy, levels of insulin will be decreased, which likely plays a role in the improvements in insulin sensitivity and glucose homeostasis.

Studies also indicate that intermittent fasting can decrease various heart disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and markers of inflammation, according to Healthline.

According to a study conducted in 2016, researchers discovered that intermittent fasting may have positive effects on cardiovascular health. It could potentially lower blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in blood that is associated with heart disease, in both humans and animals.

Studies also suggest that intermittent fasting or calorie restriction can induce adaptive autophagy, a process in which cells eliminate damaged or unnecessary components to adapt to environmental changes or stress conditions, according to the National Library of Medicine, thereby extending the lifespan or overall survival of cells in the body.

There is insufficient evidence regarding the impact of intermittent fasting on cognitive functions among healthy adults, according to The Conversation. Nonetheless, a study conducted in 2022 by the National Library of Medicine, involving 411 elderly individuals revealed that lower meal frequency, specifically consuming fewer than three meals per day, was linked to decreased indications of Alzheimer’s disease on brain scans.

Intermittent fasting and its religious roots

The practice of intermittent fasting has been ingrained in religious practices for centuries, with Ramadan being one of the most notable examples. Muslims have been fasting for almost two millennia, during Ramadan, the ninth month in the Hijri calendar.

Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, abstaining from food, drink, smoking, and sexual activity. Pre-dawn meal, they eat Suhoor, and post-sunset, comes Iftar, ending the fasting period.

Fasting during Ramadan serves not only as a religious obligation, but as a means of self-discipline, spiritual reflection, and empathy towards the less fortunate.

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