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Ramadan: the Month of Eating?

August 9, 2010
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It’s a testimony to the flight of time that Ramadan has rolled around again already. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and particularly special to us. For 29 or 30 days, Muslims abstain from all eating and drinking, speaking or doing ill in any way, and marital intimacy, during daylight hours. When you fast, it isn’t that you deny hunger itself. You deny it mastery over you. Do you get hungry? Yes. But are you ruled by it? No. Ramadan is a time when you cut yourself loose from your physical connections, the things that tie you to your body and you attempt…an ascent.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar. The lunar year is about ten days shorter than the solar year, which means that the months rotate through the seasons, moving back by about ten days each year, therefore completing a full cycle every 36 or so years. And so, for us younguns, who’ve been fasting for the last 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years, Ramadan has been very much consonant with Winter: short fasts and cold days, long, dark nights, and…something in the air. Some extra brightness of the moon, the stars seeming closer, a lot of frost, and a sense of connection with the rhythms of the earth and air.

And now – here is something new: Ramadan in August…imagine (you’re not in Australia) Christmas or Thanksgiving in Summer. It’s that kind of weird. So: Summer fasts! However will we survive, we all ask each other.

My family have made a resolution that this Ramadan, we will eat more plainly than we ever have. It is common for Muslims to go way to town about food during Ramadan – to the point it’s more like the month of eating than the month of fasting – and although we ourselves have not done it, we’ve seen enough of other people doing it that we definitely worry THUS ANOTHER PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING.

The way I see it – and we should have latched onto this long ago, fellow Muslim folks – it’s about time we started to do some strategic eating (as opposed to gorging on samosas and pakoras, and anything else you can deep-fry, until sunrise). It would be particularly smart now, because unlike in our Winter fasts, these will be physically more challenging, and it’s our responsibility to look after our health especially when we are fasting. Let’s not get knocked out by a handful of fasts at the beginning because we were too dumb not to work out how to eat properly, okay?

Common knowledge amongst dieters and people committed to losing weight: low GI (i.e. slow-release) foods are known to reduce appetite, and often score high on the satiety index. The satiety index is like all those other indices – in this case, high is good, and low is bad (unlike BMI – high BMI is bad, folks. But so is low).

Specifically, recent studies show that the satiety signals from low GI foods are linked to the rise of certain gut hormones. If you’re interested (and you might not be XD), the satiety centre – the part of your brain that tells you when you’ve eaten enough – is thought to be located in the hypothalamus (ventromedial nucleus, in case you wanted to know). However, GI and SI are not the same thing. The glycaemic index refers to the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose, whereas the satiety index is to do with (duh) satiation (i.e. how FULL you feel, two hours after you’ve eaten), and includes other food groups, i.e. proteins, fat, and fibre.

So, I think the balance to aim for should be moderate-low GI/high satiety at sahoor (the pre-dawn meal), and after your initial iftar*-dates to give your blood sugar a kick, maybe we should revert to the suhoor plan to make sure we have enough energy for standing the night in taraweeh** and any other qiyam*** or night-time devotions.

In short, the foods to go for should ideally be high in fibre and protein, and low in fat. And avoid refined sugar – that one’s the devil (in fact, refined and madly processed food in general is bad for you so you should only eat mud and dandelions, with a worm or two for protein). According to the original index, high satiety foods include boiled potatoes, fish, porridge, oranges, apples, eggs, wholemeal pasta, and…popcorn. Who knew?

And whaddyaknow, that sounds like what the nutritionists and dietitians have been saying since time began: a balanced diet. I guess we just have to keep on saying it because we Indian-types love our rich food and we can’t cook without oil (WHO COOKS WITHOUT OIL?). So every Ramadan, the health warnings roll out again, in twelve different languages from eight different agencies to make VERY SURE everyone gets the message…but we foodies Indian-types are a stubborn breed, very resistant to good advice and changes in diet.

If you’re missing your samosas**** already: you’re not missing out – really. If we aren’t so hungry, we’ll spend less time eating. And less time eating means more time to get the best out of Ramadan – and the best out of our time in general, Muslim or not.

So you see, you win.

Ramadan mubarak, Ramadan kareem!

* Iftar: break-fast, the time of fast-breaking
** taraweeh: a special night-prayer prayed in Ramadan
*** qiyam: literally, ‘standing’, i.e. in prayer.
**** But it’s probably okay to have the occasional samosa, let’s not be extremists, okay? Let’s just not spend more time cooking and eating, worshipping food and deifying our appetites, than we do worshipping God.

This semi-scienceish piece of writing was brought to you by a semi-conscious person who has now gone off to sleep.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 2:11 am

    although i am left truly speechless by this post, i am nonetheless insisting on replying that i… something… i… um… “like it” is not the right coupling of words, far too weak. i’m speechless in a *very good* way.

    okay, i tried a few more times but nothing coherent came out. delete, delete, delete. i should go to sleep too.

  2. fjafjan permalink
    August 9, 2010 4:00 am

    I watched that video and I realize it shared a weakness with most other preachy Islamic videos I’ve seen where the person just tries too hard. He’s first saying it’s all about caring about the poor and then it’s about reflection, THAT’S what it’s all about, and finally it’s actually just about not going to hell, we don’t really care about being wise of nice in this life, just let me be spared on judgement day. I mean he basically ascends from reasonably convincing to entire unconvincing in a rather unelegant fashion and crams some other stuff in there about other religions for good meassure.

    As for eating, finding protein high/low fat food is good, but jsut as important is low carb, in other words eating rice, in terms of diet, is not that great. And I mean pure protein is basically low fat meats, the cheapest being certain parts of chicken and some pork cuts. That stuff is expensive yo. Nuts are delicious but also super high in energy, beans are good but pretty high in carbs, and one can only eat so much beans.

    Also, can I like, ask questions here? Because you guys don’t seem to have a “reach us here” email adress for whatever. Well if the answer is yes, I would just like to hear what you guys think of homosexuals and homosexuality. I just watched a documentary about two (now) openly gay Swedish people from immigrant families from Tunisia and Iraq, neither being very religious but their families being so, and both families being rabidly anti-gay, to the level where both recieved death threats. The step father who allegedly beat his step daughter over this was the head of an Islamic “congregation” in Stockholm.
    I believe there are few pretty clear cut anti-gay passages in the Quran, just as there are in the Bible, how do you view that? (http://www.missionislam.com/knowledge/homosexuality.htm). (Obviously this is a personal question, it’s not like there is one answer for all Muslims, so don’t mistake the you to mean “all of you”)

    • August 9, 2010 1:22 pm

      I read your comments and I realise you share a weakness with most other rabidly secular atheists, that you just can’t comprehend the mindset of a person of faith 😛

      Right, now that I’ve got that out there – which I think is qualification enough for why I won’t enter that discussion with you – we can move on.

      I admit even when I attached the video, I wasn’t sure it was something that was appropriate for someone who wasn’t Muslim, but – as with much of my writing here – I felt that I’ve babysat other people’s sensibilities for practically my whole life, and perhaps that was a mistake. If people can’t understand Muslims, then maybe that’s partly to do with us not giving anyone a chance. People experience this great dissonance when someone they know to be rational and intelligent suddenly transforms into this alien person of faith. But actually, they’ve been that person all along. Their faith doesn’t interfere with their intellect or rationality. It simply gives them a different framework and point of reference for viewing the world. It’s because of the response from other people, and perhaps that society at large, that they feel they can’t be ‘that person’ except in ‘safe’ environments, i.e. with likeminded people. And maybe that’s a failing of the said society that it causes people to repress identities that they are made to feel are offensive because they are simply different.

      As for what fasting in Ramadan is about, it is, at its essence, an act of worship, and everything else descends from that. I personally don’t think that the primary reason is ‘to feel how poor people feel’, but I also think it would be a kind of inhumanity not to link those things, and we are meant to link them – charity is a huge part of Ramadan: it’s when the annual ‘zakah’ is due, and voluntary charity is most heartily encouraged. A big aspect of that charity involves feeding other people, and although it should never be limited specifically to Ramadan, Ramadan is a time when people are more motivated to do it.

      And yes, for people who believe they will be judged for how they lived their lives after they die, Judgement Day is something that concerns them. If you don’t believe it, then it won’t concern you, so you shouldn’t worry too much about these people’s unearthly motivations, okay?

      Re: low-carb, hahahaha. Don’t you know that until we eat rice, we haven’t eaten? There is no sense at all trying to part South Asians from their roti and rice. It would be like splitting the atom.

      I can’t deal with your homosexuality question now, possibly not until a lot later in the year because I’m too busy – and honestly, I’m not sure you can do justice to the answer – but I will say that the part where it gets to death threats and beating is not helpful to anyone. If you can be patient for a bit, and also curb your urge to argue with everything simply on the basis that you don’t agree (:P), we might try to answer the wider question, here or elsewhere.

  3. fjafjan permalink
    August 9, 2010 4:02 am

    Bah! I noticed that there was actually an email. So you can disregard my question if you like, sorry about the mixup!

  4. Lulu permalink
    August 9, 2010 5:58 am

    If we aren’t so hungry, we’ll spend less time eating. And less time eating means more time to get the best out of Ramadan.

    Drinking sweet tea or eating one piece of Dates usually help, and we seldom eat so much after drinking sweet tea or eating one piece of Dates

    • August 9, 2010 11:57 am

      Hi Lulu ^_^ Is this the famous American sweet tea that actually is called ‘sweet tea’ rather than being tea-that-is-sweet? I’ve been trying to find out if there’s an English equivalent and discovered nothing!

  5. Mahfooz Hasan permalink
    August 9, 2010 10:11 am

    Some people just get hungry really easily, people with a high basal metabolic rate, like myself (mind you I’m skinny, BMI <20). So the only way I can survive the fast is by really maxing out during suhur, anything and everything.
    A good Read.

    • August 9, 2010 12:04 pm

      I was hoping to entice a doctor/doctor-in-training (i.e. one of our other writers) into clarifying anything I fudged up (my undergrad degree in the appropriate subject was a longish time ago XD), so jazakallah khair!

      Good point about the high BMR and hunger, which is the point where I think strategy fits in: not necessarily moderating food to microscopic portions (because who wants to do that? Even people who really should?), but to eat the kind of food that will stave off hunger as long as possible. Like Shreddies! ‘Keeps hunger locked up ’til lunch’, etc.

      • Mahfooz Hasan permalink
        August 9, 2010 10:59 pm

        The problem here is people with high BMR need a relatively high glucose diet or they will feel very tired etc after long fasts, but such food usually have low SI, so need to compromise between glucose and fat enriched food and food with high SI.

  6. Allumer permalink
    August 9, 2010 11:56 am

    “Where is your heart?” That Hamza Yusuf really gets to the point. Great video.

    Sooooo, you don’t advocate gorging yourself all night and then sleeping through the fast? Or better yet, forgoing the fast in pursuit of more lofty objectives? Ha ha! I think it was summer (in the South) when I first started to fast, lo these many years ago, so I remember the long, long days.

    We decided a few years ago that we needed to change our Ramadan eating habits. Simplify is the perfect word. The iftar is not about making up for lost time (even though the body and nafs react that way). Also, it is hard to get through those Tarawih prayers when you can’t bend in the middle from eating too much. And seriously, there are times in Tarawih when it feels as if the heavens have opened up so I really don’t want to be thinking about how full I am.

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