Lessons from Fasting during Ramadan as a Non-Muslim: A Psychological Perspective
A few years ago, I was living in Sydney, sharing a flat with two friends. I was fascinated by the sincerity and devotion with which my flatmate, Sanaul, fasted during Ramadan. He told me how every year (except this) he used to celebrate the festival with his family in India. So next year, I decided to support my friend and fast with him through the holy month of Ramadan. Yes, all 30 days! As a Non-Muslim who had never fasted in his life, it was a huge achievement! And I must say it changed my life in more ways than one. Not only was it a test of my will power and self-discipline, but the experience also presented some unique lessons that have changed my perspective towards many things in life. So let me tell you all about what I learnt while fasting during Ramadan that made me a better person for myself and others around me.
While supporting my friend was my primary motivation to do this, few other reasons made me curious:
- I was always intrigued by the idea of Ramadan fasting. Water fasting seemed feasible, but not allowing any fluids to enter your body is next level.
- I had read about the benefits of fasting in terms of triggering autophagy, our body’s natural mechanism of cleaning out damaged cells to regenerate newer, healthier cells. I wanted to experience this for myself.
- I was excited to realise the benefits of giving up alcohol for a month. Read this article to know more about how I eventually quit binge drinking.
- Most importantly, I LOVE trying new things!
Here are 5 things I’ve learnt as a Non-Muslim fasting during Ramadan:
#1 You can learn to distinguish between cravings and hunger
I always thought it would be nearly impossible to fast continuously during Ramadan. That I would feel weak, grumpy and so low on energy that I would quit within the first few days. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The first few days were hard as hell. But persisting through the initial days, made me invincible. All you need is a strong intent.
It made me realise that one can go without food and water for long periods – it’s all in the mind. One doesn’t need to eat all the time to get energy for day-to-day activities. Nor is food the only option to get comfort when stressed. I realised what we often experience are cravings, not hunger. When you get cravings, the mind thinks: I’m bored, let’s eat! When you are truly hungry, the mind thinks: my body needs nourishment!
There is always a choice! Whether to give in to your cravings or take control of them.
It’s all about what story we tell ourselves. I was aware that food and drinks were not the options to lean towards during the day. So, I had no choice but to focus my attention on something else. People across different cultures fast as part of their religious practices. But when it comes to their health and wellbeing, controlling the urge to eat that extra dessert seems like a crazy idea. Fasting during Ramadan made me internalise that we have full control over our desires.
#2 You can conserve energy by gaining control over your emotions
It was the winter season in Sydney when I fasted during Ramadan. My flatmate and I were unable to wake up early morning for Sehri (pre-dawn meal). In all honesty, we did try for a few days. But eating a full-fledged meal at that time of the day, seemed unreasonable. I didn’t even feel like eating something as light as fruits. So we ended up with a small eating window between Iftar (after sunset) and sleep time.
We all have a finite amount of energy within us on any given day. That energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed from one form to another.
I noticed that subconsciously, I had started conserving more energy. It was unplanned, but at some point, I realised that I had complete control over my emotions. Being a management consultant, working with external clients, talking more than usual was common at my workplace. But I would intentionally talk only when necessary, in fewer words possible, to conserve energy. I would not feel agitated, irritated, upset, disappointed or anxious for things I would otherwise. As an example, if I disagreed with someone in a meeting, instead of retaliating with a response to correct them, I would ask them a question that may require them to think differently.
Fast forward to a few years later, I can still appreciate the importance of energy conservation in our daily lives. It has helped me develop patience and the ability to stay calm in difficult situations. Our energy is finite and we can either choose to drain it on trivial things or spend it only on things that matter.
#3 Regularly take a moment to appreciate what you have
This is something most of us tend to overlook but it was a huge realisation for me. We eat our breakfast while rushing to work, finish our lunch in between meetings and devour our dinner in front of the screen. We are in such a constant rush all the time, that we seldom take a moment to appreciate the delicious food we eat and the clean, pure water we drink.
I remember calling my friend (flatmate) every evening, while heading back home, to discuss Iftar and dinner plans. That first sip of cold water going down my throat and the first bite of fresh orange fruit was pure ecstasy. This was the first time in my life that I savoured my meals and felt that deep gratitude for what we have. And I must say, it is an amazing feeling, something that cannot be expressed in words.
#4 You find acceptance easily if you respect your commitments
When I decided to fast during Ramadan, I was unsure how my friends, colleagues and loved ones would respond to this idea. I thought maybe my parents may not approve of this given we are not Muslims. To my surprise, they just joked if I am dating a Muslim woman and wished me luck for the arduous thirty days ahead. Some of my friends laughed at me and thought I would give up in a few days. Others couldn’t believe I would quit alcohol for a month and joked that I would try to cheat. Some colleagues were upset that I won’t be socialising with them on Fridays.
Most of us listen to others and give up too soon only to prove that there was merit in their pessimism
As the days passed by, everyone noticed my seriousness and were in complete awe of my commitment. One week in and every single person I knew was ready to go out of their way to support me. The experience made me realise that we often face resistance when we try to bring about positive changes in our lives. But if we persist through that resistance just long enough and stick to our commitments, we can easily find acceptance. It may take longer sometimes, but it happens eventually. We must trust the process!
#5 Simple lifestyle changes can have a profound impact on your wellbeing
During Ramadan fasting, I noticed visible improvements in my skin appearance, hair texture, nails, and energy levels throughout the day. I even lost 7 kgs weight in that one month, even though I didn’t intend to. More on that in the next section. Some may say it was because of the miracles of fasting. But I believe that it was majorly because of three simple, yet impactful lifestyle changes:
- I was not drinking alcohol and other sugary beverages.
- We cooked most of our meals at home, ate more fruits and vegetables, and less processed foods
- I used to sleep for 7-9 hours a day, with consistent bedtimes and wake times even during weekends. So, I had a pretty stable circadian rhythm.
If you wish to learn more about lifestyle changes, I suggest you read this:
6 Lifestyle Changes for long term health
THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
The overall experience of fasting during Ramadan was positive and gave me a new perspective towards many things in life. But it would be fair to say that there were things that I would do differently if I were to do this again.
#1 Track your food intake and prioritise protein
I lost about 7 kgs of weight by the end of the thirty-day fasting period. That’s about 10% of my body weight at the time. While I had no plans of losing weight, eating fewer meals meant that I was eating much less than usual. The intake of high calorie processed foods such as chips, burgers, pizzas, fries etc. had reduced significantly which means the nutritive value of my meals had also improved.
While all those dietary changes were amazing, I did not track my protein intake which led to a significant loss of lean muscle mass along with body fat. Several clinical trials have found that consuming higher amounts of protein helps lose fat while preserving lean muscle mass in both low-calorie and standard-calorie diets. It means that I missed an opportunity to enhance my body composition. Higher muscle mass also means a higher resting metabolic rate, which makes it easier to maintain weight in future.
Fasting during Ramadan can be a good opportunity for those looking to lose weight while observing their religious traditions. If you are planning to fast or be in a caloric deficit, I suggest you read this article to understand how much you should eat and put that into practice:
#2 Ditch the All-or-Nothing mindset
During those days, I had this notion that working out means going hard and sweating it out in the gym. Due to the meal timings, I could not find a suitable time to visit my local gym. I could have at least gone during weekends but the idea of working out twice a week did not appeal to me. It was either going five days a week or not going at all. It made no sense at all, but I convinced myself to not exercise throughout the fasting period.
As a result, I had a one month break from exercise during peak winters. It took me a long time to get back on track. I also lost a lot of muscle mass due to lower protein intake and lack of strength training. Later that year, I suffered a slipped disc injury owing to lack of daily movement and erratic exercise schedule thereon.
If I were to do this again, I would include walking and stretching into my daily schedule. Given the sedentary lifestyle, some of these exercises can do wonders to strengthen your core muscles, avoid lower back stiffness and prevent any aches & pains.
CLICK HERE FOR EXERCISES
EXPERIENCE OTHER PEOPLE’S WAY OF LIFE AND EMBRACE NEW LEARNINGS
Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes gives us a whole new perspective and allows us to develop a deeper understanding of cultural differences and empathy towards others. The best part is that in this pursuit of embracing something new and learning from those experiences, we end up discovering more about ourselves.
Fasting during Ramadan helped me build a deeper bond with my friend and allowed me to exceed my expectations from self. It helped me develop better awareness about my body and mind, which changed my life in more ways than one. The learnings from those days along with various other experiences thereon enhanced my personality. Something I will carry with me for the rest of my life!
If you wish to read more about how to stay healthy during the festive season, click here
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My recommendations for protein supplements:
Whey Protein – Option 1
Whey Protein – Option 2
Vegan Protein – Option 1
Vegan protein – Option 2
Protein for Women
Other Option – Sattu
Other supplements I recommend (Confirm with your doctor before consuming):
Multivitamins for women
Read these amazing books to learn about mindset, what motivates us and how to form good habits, and break bad ones.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha
7 Habits of highly effective people
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