After Ramadan – The Pursuit of Great Health

While we know the central purpose of the Ramadan fasting is developing taqwa or God Consciousness, (Sura 2, ayah 183), Muslims often ask if the Islamic fast conveys health benefits – and if so, what these benefits are.

When the digestive system receives a rest, the entire body and brain benefit from the responding change of hormones. A key example is in the reduced frequency of food leading to release of less insulin.

Is this a good thing? Well, it might surprise you to know that chronically high insulin levels are a forerunner in various disorders, most famous of them being Type II diabetes! So yes, the reduced insulin levels are beneficial!

(So let’s not offset this benefit by overeating at suhoor and iftaar!)

The extra time spent with the Quran is calming, rejuvenating to the mind and reduces stress. Today the relationship between a relaxed spirit and a greater capacity to maintain health has been demonstrated by researchers looking both at prevention and handling of illness.

So between Ramadan and the Quran are Muslims generally healthier than the average human being?

A mischievous but useful analogy would be to ask, are Muslims generally more pious than the average human being?

Even if we avoid major sins and fulfil our fard duties it takes real focus and effort to remain God conscious, to restrain our tongues from venting sarcastic, suspicious or angry words when silence would be better, to avoid acting out of pride when we have been slighted or offended, to immerse ourselves in the Quran regularly and to be sure that Allah (swt’s) direct message is guiding the steps that make up the grand construction of our short lives.

And likewise, doing our best for the physical health of body and mind is easier in theory than in practice.

As in spiritual matters we are distracted and forgetful.

One trim, youthful looking, energetic middle aged Imam, once said he would almost consider that actively safe guarding our health is fard. He clearly felt that a life of eating carelessly, excessively and with little physical exercise is just not befitting of the Muslim.

Allah (swt) tells us to eat of the good things which He has provided for us (2:172) and that he who strives is not on a rank with he who sits still. (9:19-20)

Clearly we can maximise our striving if we maintain better health, allowing us more energy and focus!

Though we live in a nation where food is abundant for most, many things get in our way of limiting our eating to “the good things.”

Greed and lack of exercise account for some of the dangerous, extra pounds we carry but the extra fat can pile on quite innocently. Consider this ironic example:

I have witnessed patients despair when they find after cutting out almost all fat from their diet (eggs, dairy, red meat, vegetable oil, avocados, nuts), their cholesterol and body weight have not come down and worse – may have increased!

Extreme diets are always counterproductive. Without fat, certain vitamins we need to maintain balance cannot be properly absorbed or utilized. Moderate amounts of fat help to provide calories and curb hunger. Without fat we find ourselves filling up on excessive amounts of bread, rice, snacks and even fruit. Most of these are refined carbohydrates (those found in processed rice, flour and sugar – are dubbed bad carbs), which in excess slow down calorie burning and promote storage of food as fat instead. And too many refined carbs increase your cholesterol! What a vicious cycle! The bad carbs of course are innocent of what we accuse them. Changes in our food supply and eating habits have simply caused them to be scapegoated. After all they never asked to be produced or eaten to excess!

Most of the cholesterol in our bloodstreams (about 80%) is produced by the liver. We tend to forget this and focus instead on cholesterol intake from food. You may have noticed that many people who suffer high cholesterol do not indulge in full fat dairy, eggs or red meat on a regular basis but their cholesterol remains high.

Cutting down on refined carbs, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, including fish in our weekly diet and regular exercise will do a lot more to improve our overall health, energy and cholesterol levels than anything else. Why? Because these foods, together with exercise, stimulate our liver and fat cells to get their cholesterol production just right, whereas too many refined carbs stimulate just the opposite.

May favourite book for really giving us a great understanding of how what we eat really impacts our health! Learn more at www.drhyman.com

My favourite book for really giving us a great understanding of how what we eat impacts our health! Learn more at http://www.drhyman.com

So minimising sugar intake is a smart move. However when we choose artificial sweeteners for our drinks and desserts we are enjoying the taste of sweet without the burden of the calories. But to what end?

More recent research tells us that these sweeteners are not associated with weight loss. Worse, some are linked to weight gain! How could this be? Our bodies respond to the taste of “sweet” in anticipation of calories to come and our metabolism (the complex system by which our bodies determine how best to burn and balance energy) receives the signal to “store energy!”

Similarly low fat, low sugar “diet foods” leave the body expecting to be satisfied by real calories. So we return to the fridge, in a craving, bingeing mode, urged on by our confused bodies.

So part of our problem is that we don’t always distinguish “good food” from “bad food”, especially under all the deceptive packaging and advertising.

Three simple guidelines help us navigate a safer path amidst the food traps. One is to eat variety.

Fresh herbs contain a range of phyto-nutrients. Phyto-nutrients refers to vitamins, minerals and countless other beneficial compounds found in plants. We are at the early stages of identifying phyto-nutrients and understanding their contribution to health. Don’t wait 40 years for the details to be unravelled! Be sure to use a range of fresh and dried herbs in your meal preparation.

Some of mine. The bay leaves were from a friend's garden. Of course we can grow our own herbs on our kitchen window sills. Even bay leaf trees can be grown in a pot.

Some of mine. The bay leaves were from a friend’s garden. Of course we can grow our own herbs on our kitchen window sills. Even bay leaf trees can be grown in a pot.

Likewise, different vegetables offer different phyto-nutrients. You may love tomatoes and cucumbers but they cannot offer you the benefits of patchoi, cabbage and string beans. Ginger, garlic and carailli will have their own range of benefits and so on. Don’t bore your palate if it means undermining your health.

Many of us reject red meat in favour of chicken and fish but again variety should be our guide. Red meat is rich in certain essential minerals eg chromium and selenium. And these are two of the very minerals many of us lack today. Chromium is necessary for maintaining blood sugar balance and selenium is used to generate anti-oxidants.

Though excessive red meat consumption continues to be linked to ill health – the link is much stronger for processed meats so minimising sausages, burgers and deli meats is key. Beyond that, considermoderation, rather than a complete elimination of red meat. Moderation is the second guideline.

The third is to seek out food which is fresh, minimally processed and naturally sourced.

This is where knowledge collapses in the face of busy schedules and modern living! We seem to be at the mercy of the food industry and grocery retailers. Some of us no longer have time to cook our own food, far less to research how it’s processed and what standards and practices hundreds of farms adhere to.

To return to fresh, minimally processed and naturally sourced food, thought, planning, co-operation and innovation are imperative. At best, it may take more than a decade of dedicated work and education (if enough of us start now), before healthy food becomes widely available again.

Here in the UK there are some who are working towards this very vision. One grocery chain routinely seeks to include food sourced from farms near its branches. This grocery chain includes a cookery school for their membership (customers and staff) to promote the art and joy of good cooking. Some organizations have cropped up to promote small scale local farming and even individual gardening, arguing that this is essential for long term food security and for reducing the energy burden caused by importing and other transport of food.

Perhaps some young entrepreneurs will lead the way to making fresh, minimally processed and healthier food more available in the Caribbean and elsewhere, so guideline no.3 will be simpler to follow.

While excellent nutrition is the basis of optimal health, we can never have optimal health while our bodies are starved for physical activity.

Muscles that aren’t used simply shrink and this is partly why many middle aged and elderly men and women have difficulty sitting on the ground and getting back up, even without arthritis. Shrunken muscles leave more weight to be carried by our joints, especially those of the spine, hip and knee, making injuries and arthritis more likely.

Fortunately exercise at any age will benefit our muscles. Our muscles can be redeveloped.

Wanting to lose weight motivates some of us to exercise.

For others, the wish to reduce heart attack or diabetic risk or to lower blood pressure can drive the commitment to exercise.

But those of us who don’t have these immediate or medium term goals can be quite laissez faire about keeping active.

Especially if we are young, slim and busy, exercise might take a backseat.

Consequences of this error in judgement may be just around the corner. Whether or not weight creeps on, lack of exercise leads to weakened immunity and lower energy levels. Supplements, coffee and “energy drinks” cannot do the job of the physical tune up we really need.

The term “fat skinny people” describes slim people with sedentary lifestyles (too much sitting) who therefore have low percentage muscle for their weight and height. This lifestyle places them at greater risk for the very same heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer risk typically associated with being overweight.

When we increase our percentage muscle we immediately improve our overall metabolism. Translated: our bodies become more efficient at burning energy whether we are sleeping, exercising or working at our computers.

Regular exercise of any kind improves our muscle mass. There is no need to aim for the body builder look.

Even The Gentlest Exercises Make a Difference

You may have heard of Metabolic Syndrome. With Westerners sitting more and gaining further weight, Metabolic Syndrome is ever more common and of grave concern, is even being diagnosed in children. Three of the following are enough to define the syndrome: high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low levels of good cholesterol, high blood pressure and waist circumference over the safe limit.

Regular exercise steers us away from metabolic syndrome. The time to get busy is always now. Have we emphasized this enough?

I had a neighbour in his seventies who went for a game of tennis every morning, weekends included.

I remember our hajj group leader being older than all of us in his hajj group but he was the most energetic too. He went swimming regularly and fasted twice a week. Being over 70 was no excuse for him.

Such fitness does not occur overnight. Like taqwa, it requires disciplined and dedicated pursuit.

For those who love physical activity, keeping up with gym, football or running 5K races might come naturally but what of the rest of us?

We too need regular activity that we enjoy. Many start off walking with friends. Soon they find that they can walk further and faster. This is indeed progress but jogging and running should only be added with the correct guidance. Poor posture, hard surfaces and the wrong shoes can lead to injuries which handicap further exercise, defeating the cause.

Gradually introduce more than one form of exercise since different types of activity work different muscle groups. One way to ensure all muscle groups are covered as well as cardio (the type of exercises that improve heart, vessel and lung capacity) is to join a gym.

Start where it’s easy and build from there. Eg start with 15 minutes of walking five days a week. With time, progress beyond aerobic exercise (eg cardio exercises – walking, jogging, cycling, running, swimming), to include strengthening exercises (eg gym with weight bearing activities, yoga, pilates) and exercises that include stretching and relaxation.

Recently, a group of middle aged sisters decided to learn to swim. They simply arranged private swimming lessons with a female swim coach at one of our local pools, using burkhinis for modesty.

Consider that starting to walk for exercise at age 60 reduces Alzheimer’s risk and improving muscle strength reduces bone risk, so better a late start than none at all.

Those with medical conditions eg arthritis, heart disease, amputations and the like, can be referred by their medical professionals for professional guidance to get started.

Finally, fasting twice a week (but not two consecutive days), has been in the health news recently. Though Muslims have had this prescription for 1400 years, some medical researchers are now recommending this simple approach to help with weight loss, improve blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol!

Eat sensibly, exercise regularly, fast twice a week. Safeguard your health. Enough said.

Initially published in the anniversary magazine, San Fernando Jama Masjid Celebrating 100 years 1913-2013 as “Health after Ramadan.” Published October 2013

Re-published on this blog with minor edits and photos added.

Ted Video on Why Dieting Does Not Work

So many useful points shared by Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist who has struggled with weight loss.

Here are some of the most striking take home points for me:

1) the emotionally-draining, time-consuming business of a life of struggle with diets and weight loss begins in childhood, when parents, peers and society tell children that they don’t look right and it’s because of their body shape and body fat.

2) if our brains have a target weight range which we are forced to return to whether we like it or not, could this set point range be set in early childhood? Is this why breastfeeding and early nutritional habits are believed to have a lifetime impact?

3) governments, doctors and individuals can and do get fixated on weight and fat as markers for future chronic disease but while our waist circumference is very important, a healthy lifestyle seems to outweigh the risks of being overweight anyway. Shouldn’t we all then be focusing on healthy lifestyle?

Video