The month of Ramadan is here - a month of fasting, spirituality and charity. In this blog post, we’re delving into how Ramadan can impact your relationship with food, and more specifically, how it can exacerbate or result in disordered eating.
Ramadan and Weight Loss
In Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset and typically have two meals per day: a pre-dawn meal before the fasting hours commence, and a meal at sunset once the fasting hours have been completed. This means Muslims may be fasting for long hours each day, depending on the geographic location and time of year.
In the UK this year, fasting hours are roughly between 14.5 to 16.5 hours (an increase in time is experienced throughout the month, as the days are getting longer).
During the fasting hours, the body will first use the food eaten at the pre-dawn meal for energy. However, once this has been depleted, the body will then progress into breaking down its carbohydrate and fat stores. If nutritional intake during non-fasting hours is not enough to replenish energy lost during the fasting period, weight loss can occur.
Ramadan and Restricting Intake
Overly restricting food intake for the purpose of controlling weight is an example of a disordered eating behaviour. For some, losing weight after fasting can feel rewarding, which may serve to exacerbate the tendency to avoid food and drink even after Ramadan.
From my own personal experience, your community can then amplify this further. Ramadan has almost become known as ‘the month to lose weight’ and members of the community often congratulate you on any weight lost during Ramadan. This can be particularly harmful as it reinforces the ideology that restricting intake is good and losing weight or being ‘thin’ is something to celebrate. It can also lead to an increased fixation or preoccupation with weight. Soon, the intentions for fasting blur between doing so for your faith, to doing it to lose weight.
It’s important to note that wishing to reduce your weight during Ramadan is not ‘bad’. Ramadan is a time for cleansing, breaking bad habits and building good ones. Therefore, it’s an excellent opportunity to re-assess eating habits and adopt healthier dietary or lifestyle behaviours. You may choose to minimise your intake of takeaways, cakes or chocolate, and increase your consumption of fruits homemade meals.
Keep in mind that developing strict food rules or overly limiting food intake in order to lose weight can negatively impact your relationship with food and be harmful to you. For instance, over-restriction can result in nutritional deficiencies which leave you feeling tired and weak. You may also find it difficult to concentrate, which can impact your quality of life. Additionally, persistently over restricting dietary intake can lead to the development of eating disorders, such as Anorexia Nervosa.
Ramadan and Bingeing
For many Muslims, Iftar is a time for families to gather and feast together once the fast is ‘opened’ at sunset - a concept that has become the norm for many. A wide selection of foods are present at the table, including fried foods such as samosas, dumplings and pakoras, as well as sweet desserts, like jalebi, trifles, kheer, etc. This makes resisting the temptation to overindulge very challenging.
Avoiding food throughout the day and then overindulging in it later on can evoke difficult feelings such as shame and guilt, and trigger or sustain disordered eating habits. This may mean that individuals resort to purging in efforts to suppress these emotions and avoid weight gain. This cycle of bingeing followed by purging can be addictive as it causes individuals to experience a ‘high’, which can become a habit.
Ramadan is best experienced in the company of your loved ones, and opening your fasts with your family around the table is a place where often the best memories are created. In order to not jeopardise this, practising ‘mindful eating’ can help prevent overindulgence. Taking the time to eat slowly allows you to enjoy your food more and enables you to realise when you are full. Listening to your body's cues and recognising when you feel hungry or full is equally as important!
Unfortunately, fasting conceals disordered eating very well and often goes unnoticed as all of our eating behaviours change - the timings of when we eat, the types of food we consume, and the fact that it is normal to eat much less than what we typically do. If you feel that you need support regarding disordered eating or healthy eating advice, please do not hesitate to get in contact with CityDietitians for expert help.
Individuals who are ill can be exempt from fasting. This includes those who are not just physically ill but also those with mental health conditions. It may therefore be useful to seek advice from a religious figure such as an Imam or Islamic Scholar.
For information on Disordered Eating and its causes and symptoms please see my previous blog post.