Ramadan: An Opportunity To Address NCDs? Part 1

This year, for practicing Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan will commence on May 26th.  It is widely viewed as the most sacred and spiritual month of the year. For 29-30 days (based on visual sightings of the crescent moon) practicing Muslims will fast from sunrise (Suhoor) to sunset (Iftar). The fast, which lasts the course of the daylight hours (11-22 hours depending on geographical location), requires abstinence from food, drink, smoking, and sex (exceptions are given to those with medical challenges or females that are pregnant or menstruating).

Ramadan is a month of solidarity and introspection but it is no minor lifestyle adjustment. Simple and direct, the fasting protocol is intended to emphasize the true goal of Ramadan, which is to reconnect with The Quran through purification of the soul, refocus, self-discipline, and sacrifice. However, according to Nouman Ali Khan (Muslim speaker and founder, CEO and lead instructor at Bayyinah, the Institute for Arabic and Qur’anic Studies), “We have made it tradition in Ramadan that we are at the masjids until 2AM. Because it’s Ramadan (which means we don’t do anything) we are going to hibernate from fajr to maghrib, wake up for 3 minutes at a time for zuhr and asr, and eat exhaustive amounts of fried food, then pray taraweeh, and belch our way through those, and then we will be at late night restaurants and hookah joints throughout the night and then start all over again.”  Today, it is an unfortunate outcome that many Muslims end up gaining weight during Ramadan.

Obesity is considered a non-communicable disease (NCD). The NCD epidemic is projected to affect 380 million people by the year 2030, which will represent approximately 10 times the number of individuals affected by HIV/ AIDS. Today, on a global scale NCDs kill twice as many people (estimated to be responsible for 68% of deaths globally- around 40 million per year) as infectious diseases. And, if projections hold true, the global cost burden is projected to reach $47 trillion USD in 20 years.

There are four lifestyle drivers behind most NCDs: poor diets high in salt, sugar and fat and low in fruit and vegetables, physical inactivity, alcohol misuse and the use of tobacco. These drivers are not confined to political or socioeconomic boundaries for they reflect a modern environment that is becoming less and less conducive to healthy living. High-fat, high-salt, and sugary foods are an easier choice for reasons of taste, cost, accessibility, and preparation time. Clearly the root causes of unhealthy living run a spectrum of social, economic, physical, biological, and behavioral factors, most of which lie outside the usual role of health agencies.

Dr. Mark Hyman (a pioneer of the concept that social context is the biggest driver in NCDs) strongly advocates that, “We need to use our social threads, connections, and networks to heal us by changing our behavior. This is the future of healthcare.” He claims that the biggest single influence one can have on their health, by far, is what they eat. He suggests that food be reimagined as information.  Far more than calories, food acts like a set of instructions that can impact and influence biology with every bite. In fact, what we consume has the ability to alter gene expression –20,000-30,000 genes can be transformed depending on what we eat, including impacting immune systems by turning on/ off levels of inflammation.

Why not use Ramadan as a vehicle for NCD change by tapping into the community of 1.3 billion Muslims that the holy month touches? While religious fasts are primarily observed for spiritual purposes, they possess an inherent potential to positively affect health, that is, if the fasts are performed mindfully and supported by modern nutritional science. Ramadan is a community-oriented event, and getting healthy is a collaborative effort. Together, Muslims can reclaim responsibility not only for their spiritual growth, but also an evolution in the health of the mind and body (whole-istic wellness).

It is a time to leverage the power and influence of Ramadan to address NCDs: to reflect, realign, refocus, and reshape a foundation for sustained health. How will you move? How will you sleep? How will you eat? How will you drink? How will you connect? How will you slow down? How will you care for self and others? How will you bring light to your relationships, and inspire?

Start preparing, and make this Ramadan count!

Ilaria Garrett holds a Masters in Nutrition and a Bachelors degree in both Psychology and Japanese. She is also a Certified Eating Psychology Coach Ilaria is a practising wellness consultant for individuals, small groups, and large organizations. She advocates empowering individuals through a combination of scientific research and their own innate wisdom, and by doing so tackling lifestyle driven diseases (aka non-communicable diseases).  Her goal is to provide guidance that optimizes a person’s entire lifestyle and thereby their wellness. Resilient individuals are inspiring. Their resilience leads to resilient communities, and it is communities that can be true vectors of change.