By Khaled Diab
Wednesday 22 August 2012
For people who do not fast, the idea that starving yourself can improve your health sounds bonkers. Yet this is exactly what many Muslims who are have just finished fasting Ramadan believe. Over the years, I have met many people who swear by the benefits of fasting and the Arab TV menu during this holy month, in addition to the dangerous proliferation of corny soap operas, is not complete without some doctor or sheikh extolling the health virtues of fast living.
Muhammad is even believed to have said: “Fast so as to be healthy.” While for many believers the prophet's pronouncement is all the evidence they need, others look for scientific confirmation.
“Fasting has several health benefits,” enthused one Saudi columnist. “It alleviates [the] pain caused by many illnesses. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates asked people to fast because it purifies the body and helps it get rid of toxins.”
But not all modern Muslim doctors agree. One Dutch-Moroccan doctor says that, because the Ramadan fast is poorly researched, there is scant medical evidence that it is physiologically beneficial. “Doctors are not religious scholars or preachers, they should always be aware of the limits of their profession,” he warns overenthusiastic physicians.
Though I gave up fasting years ago out of a lack of spiritual conviction, I'm curious to know what science has to say on the subject. Despite the lack of research on Ramadan specifically, there have been numerous studies on fasting in general. And, surprisingly, many of them seem to confirm the benefits of going without food.
Studies have found benefits in fasting for the heart, female fertility, recovery from spinal injury, and more. Perhaps most surprising of all is that a considerable body of research is being amassed which suggests that fasting helps people live in good health for longer.
One BBC journalist, Michael Mosley, even put this to the test recently, using his own body as a human laboratory. To start with, he was doubtful. “I'd always thought of fasting as something unpleasant, with no obvious long term benefits,” he admitted.
But he was surprised at the outcome. One method that worked for him involved fasting for a painful three days, though he was allowed to drink during that time. After this period of relative starvation, Mosley's metabolism registered marked improvements, lowering his risk of contracting a number of age-related diseases, including diabetes and cancer.
However, there is a snag. For this approach to work requires fasting the three days every few weeks. A gentler method Mosley tried which delivered similar outcomes is known as intermittent fasting. There are two ways to go about this. The first is to fast on alternate days, restricting your intake to 500-600 calories on the fasting day. The other is known as 5:2 model, which involves five days of normal eating and two days of fasting (i.e. hugely restricted eating) per week. However, these models of fasting do come with a health warning: they should only be attempted by healthy people and only after they have sought medical advice.
But there is an apparent paradox here: though we need to eat to live, regularly not eating can help us live longer.
The scientific explanation relates to the growth hormone IGF-1 which drives our cells to reproduce themselves. However, as we get older, errors creep in during the reproduction process – and so long as this hormone is being produced, many of these errors go uncorrected. By reducing the production of IGF-1, fasting enables the body to enter into “repair mode” and fix these copying errors.
To my mind, the power of fasting could also have an evolutionary explanation. For most of our existence, food (especially high-protein meat matter) has been a scarce resource and a rare delight. So “fasting” was quite a common state in our evolutionary past, as was “feasting” when a store of (quickly perishable) food was found, such as the kill from a hunt. This not only helps explain the benefits of fasting, though, but also why, in our plentiful societies, many people finding it hard to switch off their hunger pangs and stop eating.
So does this prove that fasting Ramadan is good for you?
The scientific answer is no, not really – or, at best, we don't know. The approaches to fasting above are different to the Ramadan model, in which people fast every day for one month per year, and not year round as is required for fasting to deliver its apparent benefits.
Moreover, fasting aids good health by restricting calories to suppress growth hormones. But contemporary Ramadan fasting for many actually involves people consuming more calories than they usually do because, after a long day of going without, they feel they have deserved a treat, and veritable banquets are a common sight in many Muslim homes once the sun goes down.
This is, as any devout Muslim will tell you, at odds with the frugal spirit of Ramadan, whose spiritual purpose is to enable people not only to get closer to God but also to learn self-discipline and empathise with less-privileged members of society by learning what it is like to live without.
And herein lies the rub. It does not really matter for the pious whether fasting Ramadan is good for you or not. Ramadan, like any other religious rite, is an act which is performed for spiritual and ritualistic reasons.
However, in an age of increased rationality in which science is eclipsing religion, many religious people try to rationalise their faith with pseudo-scientific theories. An example of this, which one Jewish friend cited, is how many religious Jews will extol the health benefits of the kosher practice of separating dairy and milk products.
In fact, for “true believers”, even if science proved an important religious rite was harmful (or at the very least painful or non-beneficial), that would not stop them from following the diktats of their faith.
Religion is about obedience to a greater power, and is founded on the notion that even if something that religion prescribes or proscribes appears harmful, it must be ultimately good, and God, in his infinite wisdom, must have a good reason for it.
A believer's role is ultimately not to reason why – or only to reason up to the point where it does not conflict with religion. So if there is a contradiction between the two, then faith must trump rationality. And being of an independent mind and spirit, I cannot abide autocracy, even if it is supposedly heaven sent.
This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 15 August 2012.