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The Fallacy of Fasting Part 2: The "Ramadan Effect"

Posted Sep 10 2010 5:45pm

This makes no sense. 

For the past month, Muslims worldwide have been observing Ramadan by fasting during the daytime.  As an NPR report explained at the beginning of the month, this holy period is a time for Muslims to "reflect on what it's like to go hungry. They fast from dawn to dusk, and break the daily fast by sharing food and charity with those less fortunate, as well as celebrating with family and friends." Yet the result of all this fasting is not deprivation, but excess! 

In the same NPR report Political Sociologist Said Sadek explained the so-called Ramadan effect: "Egypt consumes three times its normal food consumption during the month of Ramadan."

The Egyptian government this year has tried to mitigate against the Ramadan effect by suspending daylight savings time, thus ending the daily fast an hour earlier.  All month I've been waiting for someone in the media to  expand on the logic behind the Ramadan effect and Egypt's tactical time change.  Surely someone would connect the dots between Ramadan fasting and yo-yo dieting, make some mention of the abundant science in the dieting and eating disorders world that links cyclical fasting with weight gain, or note the evidence that less time between regular meals results in less overeating .

The science is all there, but I've heard nothing further connecting it to the Ramadan effect.  Perhaps journalists are reluctant to comment on a tradition that has such deep spiritual roots.  But I'm not talking about the spirituality of sacrifice; I'm talking about the biochemistry of deprivation. 

The Ramadan effect is the equivalent of bingeing after a fast.  In an individual, this effect is the body's natural response to starvation.  The body screams, "Feed me!"  And then, "Feed me more so that the next time you do this to me, I'll have some reserves to sustain myself!"

And why would changing the clock help to counteract this effect?  Surely, if you can break your fast earlier, you'll just have more hours to keep eating before sunrise. No?  No, because the earlier you break your fast, the less deprived your brain and body feel, and the less the drive to overcompensate will push you to binge.

Fasting, like so many practices of denial and mortification in cultures the world over, represents our persistent hubris in trying to "tame" our bodies by subjecting them to unnatural rules.  Since the beginning of civilization, it seems, our natural appetites have been a source of contention, and "rational" humans have always been big believers in controlling them by asserting "mind over matter."  

But the Ramadan effect demonstrates that this power play has a natural tendency to backfire.  When it comes to the matter of our bodies, a compassionate partnership with our minds makes much more sense.

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