As the adage goes: you cannot outrun a bad diet. It turns out that we cannot fast our way out of one either.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn till sunset. Although Ramadan is widely practiced around the world, there are cultural and geographical differences in how it is observed by devotees, ranging from dietary habits to daily fasting duration.
“In the past few years, we have witnessed a surge in interest in intermittent fasting for its putative health benefits. Ramadan fasting in Islamic culture has long provided a form of intermittent fasting,” said Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, a Senior Advisor at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovations (SIFBI).
Henry was the corresponding author on a study that investigated the health benefits associated with fasting during Ramadan. The researchers critically appraised peer-reviewed literature on this topic and focused on parameters such as dietary habits, body composition and metabolic parameters.
Interestingly, the team observed a large variation in results across the globe: For instance, some studies showed an increase in calorie intake among participants, while other studies saw a sharp drop. These contradictions stem from cultural differences in dietary habits, as well as variations in the fasting duration due to latitudinal differences. “Additional confounding factors include age, gender and socioeconomic status, as well as other health and lifestyle factors of study populations,” Henry added.
While Ramadan fasting often led to a reduction in body weight in both healthy and obese individuals, any changes observed were transient. In most cases, the body weight of participants returned to pre-Ramadan levels within a few weeks. One exception was their blood lipid profile, which showed improvements that were sustained beyond the fasting period. Multiple studies reported an increase in high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels—which is protective against coronary heart disease—from fasting.
“There is a tacit assumption that Ramadan fasting will always lead to considerable health advantages irrespective of diet quality,” Henry said. “This review demonstrates that Ramadan fasting has a limited impact on health outcomes, with the exception of blood lipid profile.”
To make the best of their suhoor (before sunrise) and iftar (after sunset) meals during Ramadan, Henry recommends a diet consisting of complex carbohydrates and plenty of fruits and vegetables. He also recommends moderate physical activity and adequate hydration during this period.
“The paper has generated a considerable amount of interest in the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. We believe that this paper will trigger opportunities for research collaborations as part of the newly established ASEAN Nutrition and Food Science Network (ANFSN),” commented co-authors Farhana Osman and Sumanto Haldar.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovations (SIFBI) and the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC).