For people who do not fast, the idea that starving yourself can improve your
health sounds bonkers.
Yet this is exactly what the many Muslims
currently 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
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.
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
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
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.
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,”
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
However, there is a snag. For this approach to work requires
fasting for 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.
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) 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, but also why, in our plentiful
societies, many people finding it hard to switch off their hunger pangs and stop
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 deserve 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 empathize with
lessprivileged members of society by learning what it is like to live
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
However, in an age of increased rationality in which science is
eclipsing religion, many religious people try to rationalize 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.The writer is an
Egyptian journalist based in Jerusalem.