(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Fasting scientists are working to communicate their findings to Muslim communities to shun unhealthy practices that normally accompany Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
Muslims gain a lot of benefits from Ramadan intermittent fasting, says MoezAlIslam Faris, an associate professor of human nutrition and dietetics at the University of Sharjah. However, he adds: “What is gained is lost by the unhealthy dietary and lifestyle behaviors practiced by many people during the holy month of Ramadan.”
During Ramadan, which began on March 23 this year, Muslims fast from before dawn until after sunset each day. An early morning meal to start the fast is called suhoor, while the evening meal to break the fast is called iftar.
Faris, who leads a group of fasting science scholars at the University of Sharjah, has a list of what he calls “negative behaviors” associated with Ramadan. These unhealthy behaviors include binging at iftar, staying up late at night instead of sleeping, avoiding physical exercise and keeping sedentary behaviors, and avoiding having the suhoor meal as late as possible before dawn.
Faris and his colleagues have written widely on Ramadan fasting in leading nutrition, medicine, and health journals. Fasting research is now an academic discipline, he says, adding that hundreds of research papers are published on the topic every year.
Research shows that Ramadan intermittent fasting has “a plethora of beneficial effects on body weight, cardiometabolic risk factors, inflammatory and oxidative stress markers, and liver functions.”
Negative behaviors associated with Ramadan cannot hide these beneficial effects, he says, though they may dilute them.
Fasting in Different Seasons
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar calendar is based on the moon’s cycles and is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar.
Thus, Ramadan begins 10 to 12 days earlier each year, depending on the sighting of the new moon. That means the fasting month falls in different solar seasons over the years, and Muslims in different geographical locations are exposed to different weather and daylight conditions while fasting, raising health problems related to dehydration.
Faris notes that fasting science has examined issues of dehydration, which are frequently raised, but “clinical evidence does not support the development of pathological dehydration during the observance of Ramadan fasting.”
Still, he admits, fasting Muslims may develop “a negative fluid balance during the daytime hours, especially when exposed to hot areas and high humidity conditions.”
However, “this is a temporal condition, and instantly corrected once fasting is broken with the first sips of water.”
Faris invites fasting Muslims in hot countries to pursue the Prophetic tradition of breaking their fast with water and dates.
Citing fasting science research, he says, “There is rationale behind the Prophetic guidance as it simply corrects the most important changes associated with the practice of fasting, which are reduced blood sugar and negative fluid balance.”
He adds that “precautions and safety regulations should be strictly followed to avoid any direct sun exposure and extremely high temperature and humidity conditions during the day hours of Ramadan.
“Further, following the Prophetic guidance in delaying the pre-dawn meal to the last possible minutes will help to lower the chance of complicated negative fluid balance and reduced blood sugar during the day hours of Ramadan.”
New Techniques in Fasting Science
Fasting science, according to Faris, is making big leaps, with scholars introducing “genetic testing, genetic polymorphism, autophagy, and other innovative advanced techniques, such as lipidomics, microbiomics, and metabolomics.”
The abundance of studies carried out by Faris and his colleagues has put the University of Sharjah’s fasting research body “at the top of the active research institutes concerned with Ramadan throughout the world.”
The institute, which is part of the university’s College of Health Sciences, will be organizing an international conference in February next year, bringing together renowned researchers on fasting from different parts of the world.