The Ramadan Fast

Dates and Tea - Muslims and the Ramadan Fast

Over the past several decades North America has seen an increase in ethnic and religious diversity. With this growth comes the need to consider the unique dietary and nutritional needs of various populations. For instance, many Muslims observe specific ethnic food practices, especially during the month of Ramadan.

The U.S. Muslim population is growing and includes a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Muslims have an appetite for contemporary foods while retaining several of their cultural eating habits. In the U.S., a majority of Muslims reside in key metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest, South and West Coast. Recently there has been a burgeoning interest in meeting the dietary needs of Muslims in places including universities, hospitals, clinics and prisons, as well as in the military.

Muslims follow the religion of Islam, in which Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic calendar (lunar). Fasting during this month is one of the five pillars of Islam and it requires Muslims to abstain from many things from dawn to sunset, including eating and drinking. Regardless of ethnic, ideological and religious differences, most Muslims observe Ramadan. Due to the lunar nature of the Islamic calendar, for the next several years Ramadan will fall during the summer months. For fasting Muslims, this means absolutely no eating or drinking for approximately 17 hours. Therefore, fasting Muslims have about seven non-fasting hours each day of Ramadan, from sunset to dawn, to acquire proper hydration and nutrition.

During the Ramadan fast, energy from food is not supplied as frequently as the body needs it. Therefore, fasting Muslims need to acquire energy through alternate pathways. Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy, and without regular consumption, the body turns to glycogen stored in the liver. Glycogen can sustain the body for short-term fasting from 18 to 24 hours. Additionally, amino acids will be broken down into pyruvate and converted into glucose. Fat will be broken down and utilized for energy if the fast is extended for several days; however, this is unlikely to be a concern given that Muslims are advised to break the fast with carbohydrate-rich dates once the sun sets.

While typical Ramadan fasting is within the limits of glycogen capacity, Muslims may still experience temporary side effects of fasting such as irritability, headaches, fatigue, sleep deprivation and dehydration. Although satiety throughout the day will not be achieved since the purpose of fasting is to feel the pangs of hunger, the evening hours provide an opportunity to hydrate with water, tea, juice or milk and to eat foods that provide protein, fiber and healthy fat. The challenge of taking medications at the proper times may restrict some Muslims from fasting in accordance with legislated rules. A physician's consultation is recommended for guidance regarding medicinal regimens.