Ramadan fasting can inspire year-round healthy habits, doctors say

Those with health conditions like diabetes should consult a medical expert and proceed with caution

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The practice of fasting during Ramadan is one focused on peace and self-reflection, however doctors say that, when performed cautiously and with medical oversight, it can provide health benefits throughout the year.

Generally, medical experts advise that children, teenagers, pregnant women and those with diabetes or other chronic health conditions requiring medication avoid fasting.

Anyone with a history of eating disorders should also maintain regular meals.

Physical benefits

Health benefits claims of taking prolonged pauses between meals include the potential to extend lifespan, short-term increases of human growth hormones and even claims that it slows down the ageing process. However, there still remains a limited understanding of what happens to the human body during the fasting process.

Fasting allows the body to naturally detox, acting like a catalyst for our metabolism by increasing enzyme production to help the liver and kidneys
Munawara Yahaya, clinical dietician

“Fasting has a lot of benefits on the physical health and also mental health,” said Dr Mohammed Ahmed Raslan Omar, an internal medicine specialist at Burjeel Hospital.

“When fasting, psychologically it teaches you how to behave and have control. From the physiological aspect, it clears the body of toxins.

“It helps you control your diet and for people who want to lose weight, it teaches you discipline to adjust meal times.”

Healthy eating

Increasing protein and fibre in the diet, and drinking more water than usual in between fasts is recommended by doctors to stay healthy during Ramadan.

Exercise regimes should also be adapted to ensure activity is not performed at the end of a long period of fasting, to avoid dehydration or other complications.

“Intermittent fasting allows your body to use stored fats, burning the excess in your body,” said Dr Omar.

“When fasting, the recommendation is to add some complex carbohydrates like beans or pulses that remain in your stomach, preventing hypoglycaemic attacks during daytime.”

In January, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said a weekly 36-hour water fast – where he only consumes water, tea and sugar-free drinks – helps him maintain discipline to deal with a busy schedule.

Not eating from 5pm on a Sunday to 5am on the following Tuesday may seem like an extreme example of intermittent fasting, but experts said shorter periods can have health benefits.

Munawara Yahaya, clinical dietitian at the Nabta Health Clinic in Dubai, said fasting is generally safe if done with care.

“During Ramadan, I always suggest when you start early morning, women need to add more probiotics and protein, to keep their gut healthy for the entire day," she said.

“It is important to maintain regular blood sugar levels when they add more probiotics like kimchi, yoghurt or curd, and it is important to hydrate before the actual fasting starts.”

Year-long benefits

Outside of Ramadan, fasting has become popular among those seeking a healthier lifestyle, or looking to lose weight.

Popular regimes include the 5:2 fast, where calories are restricted to just 500 for women and 600 for men, twice a week, and the ‘eat stop eat’ fast which equates to a complete 24-hour fast once or twice a week.

Another popular pattern is the 16:8 fast which involves only consuming food in an 8-hour window, then fasting for 16 hours a day, each day of the week.

Ms Yahaya said eating the right foods can be as important as the fast itself when trying to maximise health benefits.

“People can help gut preparation for digestion after a period of fasting by eating fibre first, then protein,” Ms Yahaya said.

“Generally, periods of fasting help in digestion.

“It allows the body to naturally detox, acting like a catalyst for our metabolism by increasing enzyme production to help the liver and kidneys.”

Ms Yahaya said that it also helps control blood sugar levels and protect against severe medical conditions like cancer or neurodegenerative diseases.

“While regular fasting can have benefits, it can be difficult to maintain,” she added.

“People often feel more hungry, so tend to overeat.

“This is quite common during Ramadan and usually leads to an urge to eat more sugary foods so people need to be careful.”

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Updated: March 14, 2024, 1:16 PM