Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- With the advent of the holy month of Ramadan, it provides interesting fodder to examine the great benefits of this month not only spiritually but also from a health perspective. Regretfully, for some people, Ramadan is a month of excess, consumption and waste.
In 1981, experts estimated that consumption during the month of Ramadan in Egypt, for example, amounts to approximately 20 percent of its annual consumption. This means that Egypt consumes one-fifth of its entire annual consumption in just one month, while the remaining four-fifth are consumed over the rest of the year. This fact applies to most Arab and Islamic countries.
Asharq Al-Awsat consulted with Dr. Hassan Shamsi Basha on the subject. Dr. Hassan Basha is a cardiology consultant at the King Fahd Armed Forces Hospital and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London, Ireland, Glasgow, as well as fellow of the American College of Cardiology. He stated that the amount of food consumed during Ramadan should not be substantially different from any other time. The fasting individual should be keen to not gain weight during Ramadan; in fact, it may be viewed as a golden opportunity to lose a few kilograms for those who are overweight.
Dr. Hassan Basha cited expert advice that highlights the importance of masticating food well [to aid digestion]. He also referred to the advice of nutrition experts that recommends that meals should be rich in slow-digesting foods (or complex carbohydrates), such as those containing wheat, oats, beans, lentils, brown rice and flour. This is as opposed to fast-digesting foods; such are those containing white sugar and white flour, among other things. Foods rich in fibre include wholemeal grains, legumes and vegetables such as green peas, beans and spinach, and fruits including figs and apricots.
During the fasting month, one should maintain a balanced diet that contains vegetables and meat, especially chicken and fish. As for fried foods, these are unhealthy and should be consumed in limited quantities as they can lead to dyspepsia, heartburn, acid reflux, and weight gain.
Dr. Hassan Basha added that fasting is useful for those afflicted by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Eating the right types of food and drinking clean water are important factors in controlling IBS symptoms. Undoubtedly, an early diagnosis of the disease along with a balanced diet may help reduce the complications of the illness.
Fasting is also an excellent opportunity for overweight individuals who suffer joint aches to reduce their weight, which only serves to magnify the pain. Ramadan is also a good time for elderly diabetics to reduce their weight and control their blood sugar-levels. There are numerous scientific studies that indicate that fasting in Ramadan improves the body’s immunity.
Dr. Hassan Basha asserts that the best advice for people fasting is to eat in moderation and partake in physical activity afterwards to help the body digest food. Exercise activates stomach and intestinal movement and speeds up the digestion process, relieving the feelings of bloating and indigestion. A medical research report published by Dr. Shahed Athar estimated that performing the nocturnal Taraweeh prayers burns approximately 200 calories.
Meanwhile, the Suhoor meal; the last meal eaten before the fast begins, is useful in preventing headaches, fatigue and thirst. Suhoor is best when it is comprised of light foods such as yoghurt, bread, honey and fruits etc., so that it may be easily digested. It is also advised that albumin-containing foods should be consumed during the Suhoor, sinve they help stave off hunger better than starchy foods, which only cause more hunger due to the rises in insulin. Ideally, the meal should include some carbohydrates so as to supply the body with energy during the long hours of fasting.
Cases of acute heart attacks during the consumption of heavy meals or immediately after eating are common. We find that victims of these sudden attacks usually suffer from obesity. Those with heart problems benefit from fasting because 10 percent of the blood pumped by the heart around the body is directed to the digestive system during the digestion process. This amount decreases during the fasting hours when there is no food to digest during the day, which in turn means less effort for the heart muscle and greater comfort for the body.
In our era, there is an increased number of psychological illnesses. Many clinics and hospitals have been established for this cause where qualified doctors and experts specialize in treating such diseases, and billions of dollars are spent on medication. Dr. Hassan Shamsi Basha confirmed the existence of psychosomatic diseases, adding that anxiety, depression and insomnia are often related to various cardiac diseases that range from high blood pressure to unusual heart rates. Moreover, psychiatric disorders can also affect the digestive system, while depression in many cases can lead to alcohol and drug abuse. As such, the obligation to refrain from food, drink and sexual relations [during the hours of fasting] strengthens one’s will. Researchers in Jordan witnessed a significant decrease in the level of suicide attempts during the holy month of Ramadan.
Undoubtedly, fasting gives the body the chance to rebalance itself. It also helps the body purge itself of toxins while strengthening the individual’s will power. This resolve enables fasters to give up habits that destroy their health and could end up endangering their lives.