Ramadan and the Practice of Fasting

To continue with my series of discussing local food practices in Egypt I thought I’d next explore Ramadan and the practice of fasting.  For my previous post on the concept of Halal click here.

What is Ramadan?

As someone who was raised Catholic, my early years did not include a lot of exposure to differing religious practices.  The first time I recall hearing the term “Ramadan” was shortly after I had moved to Calgary in 2003.  I distinctly remember that Ramadan was being discussed on the local sports radio station.  There happened to be a player for the Calgary Stampeders football team who was a practicing Muslim.  This player was a star on the team’s defense and because Ramadan would fall in the middle of the season there were questions of the impact it might have on his health/performance.

I’ve since learned that Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Since the Islamic lunar calendar is 354 (or 355) days, when looking at the Gregorian calendar (which is solar-based), it is about 11 days earlier each year. In 2013, Ramadan takes place from July 9 to August 7.  The hallmark characteristic of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Rather than attempt to describe why Muslims adhere to fasting during Ramadan myself, I thought I’d leave that to the good people at www.whatisramadan.com:

“Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of the Islam religion, and one of the main types of Islamic worship. Restraint from everyday enjoyment and curbing wicked intentions and cravings are considered as an act of compliance and obedience to God, as well as amends for sins, faults, and mistakes……During Ramadan, Muslims request forgiveness for sins in the past, pray for direction and assistance in abstaining from everyday troubles, and endeavour to cleanse themselves through self-control and great acts of faith.”

A man raises his hands to pray near the sea at sunset after a day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

A man raises his hands to pray near the sea at sunset after a day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

All adult Muslims are expected to participate in Ramadan.  The only exceptions to this are those who are sick, elderly, menstruating, pregnant, breast-feeding, or travelling.

During Ramadan no food or drink are allowed during daylight hours (this includes water and chewing gum).  Medications and smoking are also abstained from while fasting.  Each day begins before dawn with a pre-fast meal called “suhur”.  After sunset the fasting period ends with a meal called “iftar”.  Between iftar and suhur both snacking and hydrating are encouraged.

Foods associated with Ramadan

The foods eaten by Muslims during Ramadan can be as varied as the people involved.  That said, foods tend to be higher in calories/fat and based around meats (beef/lamb) and chicken.  Today’s dishes are also often a mix of traditional and newer foods.  

A man arranges plates with meals for Iftar (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

A man arranges plates with meals for Iftar (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

In Egypt, some traditional foods eaten at suhur are ful medames (think hummus but with fava beans), yogurt, fried/hard boiled eggs, pita bread, dried fruits and cheese.  Traditional iftar meals often start with dates and water/milk followed by a dinner meal that can include different kinds of vegetable stews, mulukhia (mallow leaf soup), beans, stuffed vegetables, stuffed vine leaves, fatta (a dish made with bread, rice and topped with garlic & vinegar meat soup), grilled/fried chicken or meat and rice.  These foods are generally the same as those that are eaten throughout the rest of the year, although rather than being prepared once or twice per week, during Ramadan they are made daily.

Health implications of fasting

In truth, the Calgary sports media had reason to be concerned about their star football player.  Performance notwithstanding, if someone isn’t consuming fluids while engaging in intense physical activity (particularly in the summer heat), they run the real risk of dehydration, heat stroke and potentially even death.  It stands to reason that any high-end athlete who is practicing fasting during Ramadan should be closely monitored and have their training schedule modified (ie. less intense activities, working-out indoors, etc…) to minimize any of these negative effects.  Fortunately, the majority of Muslims are not elite athletes.  As long as individuals reduce their physical activity during the day and make sure they hydrate between iftar and suhur the risk of dehydration should be minimal.

In terms of other potential health implications, its been noted that weight loss AND weight gain may be an outcome for people during Ramadan.  The idea of weight loss is probably fairly obvious to most people (fewer meals = less calories = weight loss).  While this can be true, since iftar meals follow an extended fast (>12hrs) and are often a social event, individuals may be inclined to overindulge in the higher calorie options (ie. fried foods/desserts) that are available during this time of year.  This combined with a reduction of physical activity can actually lead to weight gain for some individuals.

Ramadan and me

I’m a little disappointed that Ramadan begins and ends before I arrive in Egypt.  It would’ve been interesting to see the day-to-day impact of Ramadam on the Egyptian people.  Will most restaurants be closed during the day?  Will there be noticeably less people out-and-about?  How strict do local Muslims typically adhere to the practice of fasting?  I might just have to make sure I’m around for Ramadan next year to find out!

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