The Holy Month represents a time of spiritual fasting for Muslims, but could we all benefit from fasting?

With Ramadan upon us, Muslims across the world are abstaining from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset in recognition of those less fortunate and as a symbol of atonement and gratitude.

While those outside the Muslim community often join in the nightly festivities of the holy month by sharing iftars and suhours with their Muslim friends, it seems we could all benefit from joining our Muslim friends in fasting, too.

Not just for spiritual reasons but for the benefit of our health as well.

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Pippa Campbell, nutritionist and weight loss coach explains: “Twenty-four-hour fasting actually sends your body into a sort of ‘shock’ mode to burn more fat, as it is searching for other sources of energy… It can really kick-start your metabolism.”

Intermittent fasting has been a buzzword in the diet world in recent years thanks to the popularity of diet books such as The 5:2 Diet and The 8-Hour Diet.

Michael Mosley, the creator of the 5:2 diet claims that as well as helping people lose weight, intermittent fasting (or IF to converts) can help reduce the risk of diabetes, dementia and cancer.

“IF has been most extensively studied in volunteers who are obese or overweight. In a recent study of 115 overweight women, those who restricted their calories two days a week lost more fat and had a greater improvement in biomarkers that relate to breast cancer risk than women doing conventional daily dieting,” says Mosley on his website.

The benefits for those who are not overweight are less clear (because fewer studies have been done), however Mosley points out: “In one experiment, a number of fit young men were asked to practice IF without losing weight for a few weeks. During that time they saw improved insulin sensitivity, a marker for reduced diabetes risk. Studies of IF in animals have shown that it reduces risk of dementia.”

He adds: “Fasting also has a spiritual dimension and has been advocated by most of the great religions.”

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The latest incarnation of intermittent fasting is a concept called time-restricted eating (TRE). Based on the assumption that the majority of us spend our waking hours either eating or planning what we will soon be eating (guilty!), this diet simply shortens the number of hours during the day that you can eat.

The diet is based on new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham designed to discover whether changing a person’s eating schedule could help them lose weight and burn fat.

During the study, 11 overweight men and women spent four days eating during a ‘restricted schedule’ of 8am and 2pm, and then four more days eating between 8am and 8pm. Researchers found that the time-restricted eating improved the amount of fat the participants burned at night. What’s more, it lead to fewer cravings throughout the day.

The results were at odds with the “eat little and often” diet mantra that’s soared in popularity in recent years.

“What we’ve learned in the last 10 to 15 years is not only what you eat, but when you eat seems to matter,” said researcher Courtney Peterson, Ph.D, assistant professor of nutrition medicine and scientist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC).

“It doesn’t seem like the number of meals per day that you eat affects weight loss or your health in general… if you eat lots of small meals throughout the day it’s not going to rev up your metabolism.”

The idea of TRE is that by restricting your eating window, you’re effectively kick-starting your metabolism. During the fasting window, your body uses up its stores of glycogen from carbs and starts to burn fat. You can choose your own window in which to fast to suit your lifestyle and set the length of that window (though it should be longer than a typical overnight fast of 8-12 hours).

It’s been suggested that limiting your eating hours to the morning can help your body digest the food you eat better as this is when you circadian clock is optimised. What’s more, it’s said results can be seen in as little as five days. The key is to eat enough during your eating window to avoid feeling famished at night.

The best bit? Advocates report weight loss without reducing the amount they eat.

Sound too good to be true? Emirates Woman reader Eleanor McAlister, 37, put it to the test.

Here is how she got on:

“My time-restricted eating plan I had read a bit about the benefits of time-restricted eating, mainly that it helps your body burn fat and that it can improve your blood pressure and blood sugar levels. The main reason I wanted to try it, however, was because I wanted to kick my habit of evening grazing.

“As a busy mum of three, I had gotten into the habit of ‘rewarding’ myself with junk food after the kids had gone to bed in the evening. I’d regularly eat crisps and chocolate in front of the TV. I set my eating window from 11am to 7pm as this was the best way I could fit it around family life. I still wanted to be able to eat dinner as a family in the early evening and I am generally so busy getting the kids fed and dressed for school that I don’t have time for a huge breakfast anyway.

“On the first day, I did the school run and came back and made myself brunch at 11am. I was a bit worried that I’d be so famished by that time that I would stuff myself with unhealthy food and counteract the fasting. But actually, my body was craving nutritious food. I made myself a healthy smoothie with plenty of healthy fats to keep me going instead.

“On the whole, I didn’t restrict my calories during the day, just the time I consumed them. So after a normal lunch and dinner with the kids (usually pasta or casserole), I stopped eating at 7pm, restricting myself to water in the evenings.

“I must admit, the first few evenings were really hard. I felt hungry without my usual TV snacks and went to bed early on the first couple of evenings. By day three though, I’d kicked the habit and didn’t crave junk in the evenings anymore.

“I noticed the weight loss almost immediately. I lost 5lbs in the first week. More than that, my mind and body felt more connected. I re-educated myself on how to listen to my body, so my eating was driven by hunger, not by an emotional need or boredom.

“I felt more energetic, slept better and my skin looked brighter too. Unlike other diets I’ve tried, I definitely feel like TRE is sustainable.”

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Image: Getty
Words: Aoife Stuart-Madge