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Doctors back Ramadan-style intermittent fasting

Eating for just eight hours a day comes with health benefits, say experts

  • The fasting observed during Ramadan is similar to one of the top three intermittent dietary patterns Image Credit: Shutterstock
  • Prolonged fasting with just water, combined with a low-calorie, high-nutrition diet, brings health benefitsImage Credit: Shutterstock
GN Focus

We have all been at some point advised about the various no-fat, all-fat, cabbage-soup, raw-veggies-no-dressing, six-small-meals and gluten-free eating plans, which were supposedly scientifically proven at the time they were popular.

New science states it’s the age-old formula of intermittent fasting that works best to gain multiple health benefits along with sustainable weight loss. A pilot study by Dr Valter Longo’s lab at University of Southern California (USC) in 2015 on 19 healthy humans showed positive trends with impact on biomarkers for ageing, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, in just a short period of three cycles of five days each month over three months.

Authoritynutrition.com defines intermittent fasting as an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. It does not say anything about which foods to eat, but rather when you should eat them. There are several different methods, all of which split the day or week into eating periods and fasting periods. 

While the jury of health-care experts are still out mulling the final verdict on intermittent fasting, there is evidence provided by cultural history of many centuries. Humans have fasted for most of their existence, whether it was due to extended periods of food scarcity or for religious reasons as in Ramadan.

Spiritual benefits aside, the Ramadan pattern of fasting is similar to one of the top three intermittent dietary patterns now gaining popularity across global populations. Usually termed as the 16/8 fast, it reduces feeding time over a period until it’s down to eating for just eight hours a day and fasting for up to 16 hours.

Support from health experts

Intermittent fasting has gained significant expert support. “The following health benefits are attributable to this lifestyle: reduction in insulin secretion resulting in a lowering of the risk for diabetes, enhanced immunity, increased metabolic rate and hence weight loss through raised growth hormone and noradrenaline level, and some studies have suggested a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist and Medical Director at the London Sleep Centre in Dubai.

There seems to be a growing body of evidence of intermittent fasting reducing the root causes of disease, including inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin resistance, which is known to cause type 2 diabetes. Further research on mice published in May 2015 by Dr Longo’s lab at USC’s Longevity Institute shows significant benefits of prolonged fasting with just water, combined with a low-calorie, high-nutrition diet.

Spiritual side

Al-Islam.org cites several Quranic verses that prescribe fasting for all believers. One such is: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard (against evil).” Yet another goes: “The fasting men and the fasting women… Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward.”

“The son of Adam does not fill any vessel worse than his stomach; for the son of Adam a few mouthfuls are sufficient to keep his back straight. If you must fill it, then one-third for food, one-third for drink and one-third for air,” Dr Shareej S., Specialist Gastroenterologist at Zulekha Hospital says quoting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

Medical professionals substantiate the Ramadan pattern of fasting from their experience with patients.  “I have seen a lot of patients improve a great deal when they are fasting especially those with diabetes and hypertension,” says Dr. Ali Asad, Consulting Physician at Mayo Hospital, Lahore. “However, that’s not the same case for those with advanced levels of either condition. Therefore, I would strongly advise patients consult their physicians before they decide to fast.”

Intermittent fasting seems to be, however, recommending exactly what other popular weight-loss advice often promotes. That is the practice of grazing or eating mini meals as a way to regulate appetite, increase the sense of satiety and even help keep metabolism revved up. The most commonly considered normal pattern established across the world, so far, has been of three meals daily, plus snacks. This pattern was reported as “abnormal” from the perspective of human evolution by an international group of researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It may seem the wise always knew and propagated the benefits of this age-old tradition – often scoffed at by progressive groups, until scientific evidence to support it came by. While conclusive evidence in support of either intermittent fasting or its opposite, grazing, is still awaited, it may be best to try each method to see if it works equally or better than conventional meal patterns. Modern science is certainly well on its way to agreeing with ancient fasting patterns prescribed by the scriptures. Whether or not it may be equally beneficial for all, under proper medical guidance, it would not cause harm.

Expert recommendations for healthy Ramadan fasting

Dos

1.            Iftar

•             1-3 dates, cup of low fat yoghurt, water

•             Rest or offer Maghrib prayers for 5-10 minutes before eating anything else.

Benefit: Dates aid the stomach in easing the digestive process.

2.            Between iftar and suhour

•             Soup, salad 5-10 minutes after iftar 

•             Meal with meats and lots of green vegetables in 1-2 hours

•             As required, for the rest of the period, eat nuts, fruits, yoghurt, a small bowl of salad, all with as low fat options as possible.

•             Plenty of water – no less than 2 litres advisable

Benefits: Low-fat foods regulate the gastric and intestinal transit time, enabling one to eat well during suhour again. Water aids in avoiding potential constipation.

3.            Suhour

•             Same size and quality as a typical breakfast on a regular day.

•             Ideally comprising high-fibre, complex carbohydrates – eg. barley, wheat, oats, millet, semolina, beans, lentils, wholemeal flour or unpolished rice.

Benefits: High-fibre, nutritious, complex carbohydrates provide energy through the day by maintaining blood sugar levels and also aids in retaining water longer.

Don’ts

1.            A high-fat diet any time of the period between iftar and suhour. Deep-fried foods to be strictly avoided.

Benefit: Improved regulation of gastric and intestinal transit time

2.            Caffeinated drinks, including coffee, tea or coke, should also be avoided.

Benefit: Prevent dehydration that may be induced by caffeine due to excessive water loss through urination.

3.            Avoid juices, sweet beverages, and fatty and sugary desserts.

Benefit: Balance blood sugar levels better and thereby improve energy levels and reduce hunger pangs through the fasting period.  

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