Fasting or Feasting for Health


By Dr.M.A.Mohamed Saleem

Muslims all over the world completed Ramadan, a month long obligatory fasting, on Sunday 24th May. Fasting is a conscious submission to a prescription from God, conveyed to Muslims through the final Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him-PBUH): "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may (learn) self-restraint" (Quran 2:183). What is significant from this Quranic verse is that God in his wisdom also made this prescription to earlier generations through a chain of prophets before Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Today, world over, fasting appears a formalized annual practice among the Muslims as part of their obligatory collective prayers and renewal of conviction that no one is worthy of worship except Allah, the one and only.

Fasting implies a deliberate effort forgoing food intake in terms of quantity and frequency. Every living being, except the modern humans and domesticated animals, experiences some form of intermittent energy intake. Carnivores may kill and eat the prey only a few times each week or even less frequently and early hunter-gatherers, including those living today, only ate intermittently depending upon food availability. However, their physical and mental functions during the extended periods without food were not impaired as they were of fundamental importance for evolutionary progress. Intermittent food deprivation is not considered fasting which strictly is taken to mean voluntary denial of ingesting solids and liquids for a period of time in spite of having ready access to them. In addition, for Muslims, fasting will also entail denial of sensual pleasures during this spell of restricted energy intake.

According Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) "Nothing is worse than a person filling his stomach. It should be enough to have a few bites to satisfy hunger. But, if one wishes more, solid food should occupy only one-third of the stomach, one-third left for water and one-third for breath". Thus, the characteristic modern eating pattern of three meals plus snacks every day seems abnormal and, no other animal seems to have violated the primordial laws of eating and eating wrongly as much as the humans. Year round food availability and changing social, economic and working schedules may have contributed to a three meal eating culture.

With industrialization and prolongation of daily illumination hours food consumption patterns became more erratic and, processed high calorie density foodstuffs (refined grains, sugar, cooking oils, corn syrup etc.) permeated daily food intake. When such habits are superimposed on increasingly sedentary lifestyles the circadian life rhythms that a healthy human body is accustomed to gets disrupted. Unfortunately, in some of the affluent Islamic societies today the spirit and sanctity of fasting seem lost as the daytime habits are shifted to the night-time. In some Middle Eastern countries, in particular, Ramadan has become a month long experience with highly enriched night-feasting and ostentatious shopping thrills while daylight hours are spent in deep slumber devoid of food.

There seems to be growing evidence that intermittent energy restriction (fasting) periods can improve health indicators and counteract disease. Fasting in an ancient, inexpensive and powerful healing strategy known to mankind. From 11-17 May 2020 a gathering of nutritionists and other health workers at a Fasting Transformation Summit in the USA claimed that fasting is the only rapid healing method in the world and, as the body heals itself no doctor’s intervention is required. Benefits from different forms of fasting are established: wet fasting using only liquids, extended fasting without solid intake ranging from 12 to 72 hrs, dry fasting with no solids and liquids are some common fasting methods among various other fasting combinations that have been experimented.

Fasting offers additional physiological rest period for the body to repair. Although in the circadian physiological rhythms body repair takes place during sleep at night, this replenishing process is incomplete with life-styles of over eating at erratic hours and deprived sleep. As digestion is a very energy consuming process intermittent longer fasting seems to provide sufficient duration to divest energy for various systems to detoxify and recalibrate back to optimal functions. While fasting a metabolic shift occurs which bolsters neuronal bioenergetics. Liver glycogen stores are typically depleted and ketones that are ultimately released into the blood nourish various tissues. Neurons in the brain utilizes ketones to generate ATP and, going through different chemical pathways it ultimately refreshes the DNA. In this process, some claim that the bad genes are turned off.

Fasting is claimed to inhibit the mTOR pathway and stimulate autophagy which is the breaking up of diseased or damaged cells in many tissues including liver, kidney, and skeletal muscle. In this way, fasting "cleanses" cells of damaged molecules and organelles. Cells in tumors exhibit major mitochondrial abnormalities and generate their ATP primarily from glycolysis. Shift to keto-genesis during fasting may play an important role in suppressing tumor growth because many tumor cells are largely unable to use ketones as an energy source. During fasting the gut microbiomes also seem to be reset, initiating a healing process and giving some credence to a popular belief that "disease starts in the gut but also health starts from the gut"

There are many myths and presumptions concerning diet and health. We have been conditioned to believe that, for good health, one needs several meals a day and should be eating from waking up to the time of going to bed. According to some, the more one eats the more money to be made. There is overwhelming evidence from different clinical studies over several years to institute clear public health recommendations to alter meal patterning and including pro-health fasting practices. However, various groups are at play resisting such recommendations becoming a common practice. Large scale food producers, food processors, food retailers, restaurants and other affiliated industries (e.g. airlines, concert stadiums, television cooking shows and advertisements to promote food products etc.): all have vested financial interests which may work against any proposal to shift eating patterns and, as a result, leading to reduction in total food purchased. Stiff resistance may also come from the very public that has so far passionately got used to regular over eating culture.

Sadly, the conventional profit-oriented healthcare system will be least interested in recommending anything other than pharma drugs to keep anyone disease free. Medical training and practitioners in this healthcare system are only programmed to uphold the philosophy of ‘pill for every ill’. In many situations food industries and pharmaceutical industries work closely and, regulating food habits and reducing food consumption may not serve their commercial interests although such actions have many health benefits.

While health benefits from various forms of fasting are increasingly being realized in many countries some may consider fasting as strenuous and self-torture. Particularly for those who have got used to uncontrolled eating obligatory fasting may sound placing a heavy burden on them. Muslims believe in the Divine promise that no one will be made to carry a load that one cannot bear. Personal benefits to humans from fasting is evident from another Divine pronouncement in the Quran"…And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew" (Quran 2:185). By making fasting an obligatory duty caring for one’s personal health becomes a form worship and, cultivation of self-restraint is what the collective fasting during the Ramadan aims to achieve. If fasting becomes a common practice by all, in whatever form God had intended for humanity, it certainly will make a huge difference in diverting much needed food, released from reduced food use/purchase by affluent households, to households that are eternally caught in the web of hunger or intermittent food shortage. Regularized fasting as a virtue can become a useful and effective weapon for improving societal health and wellbeing at large. Indeed, a wild dream in the contemporary world we call our home.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...