Weight Fluctuations During Ramadan
Suha Najjar, RD, LDN
Weight loss during Ramadan is a welcome, worldly bonus to the multiplied, spiritual rewards. It helps us practice better self-control. For some it is an opportunity to catapult their weight loss goals, while for others it’s perplexing to see weight creep up, despite long hours without any nourishment. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the curious world of human physiology. Here, weight fluctuations are based on metabolic adaptation under varying conditions.
The body needs micronutrients and macronutrients in order to stay balanced. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, and water; none of these essential nutrients have calories in them, so they are not energy bearing. A lack of water or excessive sweat/urination that is not replenished with fluids can cause dehydration, so it’s best to avoid being outdoors during hours of high sunlight.
Macronutrients include fat, protein, and carbohydrates (carbs). Carbs, which contain sugar and metabolize with the first bite, are used as the body’s primary fuel source and their breakdown triggers the quick release of insulin. Insulin acts as a key that opens the cell membranes to receive glucose to be used as energy. Insulin is a growth hormone that generates fat from excess carbs not used for energy metabolism, and stores glucose in the liver as glycogen for later use. Remember that the body goes into a survival, homeostasis mode in order to conserve the little energy it is receiving during periods of fasting. The primal brain interprets it as a threat of famine where fuel is scarce; it doesn’t know that you are fasting voluntarily. All it knows is it has to save the Queen—the brain. The metabolism thus slows down.
Sometimes what appears as weight loss is actually dehydration. It is a good idea to stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle near the bed to sip on throughout the night. Caffeinated beverages should be avoided, or their intake minimized, to this end.
The liver holds glycogen to be used primarily for energy during sleep. However, the liver has a finite storage capacity and when stores are used up, the body pulls energy from its fat stores. In the case of fasting, fat is not solely used as energy, rather it is used in conjunction with muscle. Depending on eating (and fasting) habits, some individuals appear emaciated towards the end of Ramadan due to lost fluids and muscle mass, burnt up for energy utilization. This can lead to weight loss, muscle weakness, and prolonged fatigue. Thus it is important to take protein rich foods−nuts, cheese, legumes, and lean meat before bed or protein shakes for suhoor−the pre-dawn meal (try halal certified Organic Valley or EAS Complete Protein Powder). It’s a good idea to seek a registered dietitian’s assistance, at the very beginning of the month, for planning balanced meals.
Hormones ghrelin and leptin are responsible for appetite regulation. With prolonged fasting ghrelin levels rise and continue to rise in hopes that you eat enough to satiate your energy level. There are two possible outcomes for ignoring ghrelin signals. Either it will encourage you to eat the most calorically heavy foods (I see you chocolate fudge cake) in the quickest period to squash the hunger and save the body from starvation upon breaking the fast or lead to appetite deregulation from suppressing hunger cues. This may be one reason why Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) encouraged people who were fasting to hasten to break the fast and said, “You should take sahur, for it is the blessed breakfast.” (Sunan an Nasa’I, Book 22, Hadith 75)
Leptin is the hormone responsible for countering ghrelin by signaling satiety. It encourages us to slow down or cease eating. During Ramadan (especially during summer months), when the days are long and fasting is prolonged, ghrelin can get uncomfortably high. Breaking the fast with high calorie foods, eaten very quickly, does not give leptin a chance to tell the body to slow down before it reaches a point where it is exceedingly full. It’s advisable to break the fast with dates, water, and a small soup or salad, then pray maghrib (fourth prayer of the day) and come back to finish the meal. The prayer break can help regulate hunger, by forcing you to slow down while leptin catches up. Go easy on carbs, sugar, and deep-fried indulgences.
While it may be easy to shrug off exercise, physical activity can help shed those unwanted pounds while helping you maintain muscle mass. If you ate a very heavy dinner, a 30-minute walk is a perfect way to ensure that extra calories are put to good use. Be active−not exhausted. Consider exercising right before iftar (evening meal that breaks the fast) so that you are able to hydrate and replenish lost nutrients immediately.
Be it loss or gain, weight fluctuations around Ramadan can easily return to pre-Ramadan baselines and are none the less secondary to the immense spiritual reward that can be earned during this blessed month. That’s there to stay.
Suha Najjar, RD, LDN, is a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist. She provides outpatient nutrition education to students at North Carolina State University. She enjoys spending time with family, exploring new restaurants and bootcamp exercise classes.