Ramadan is now safely two weeks in the rear-view mirror, or about 45 weeks in the future, depending on your perspective.
Near the end of Ramadan, I came across two interesting articles on eating and hunger. They were not written with each other in mind, and neither seemingly had anything to do with Ramadan. However once you read the articles and think deeper about Ramadan, the connection between all three is clear.
The first article dealt with Breatharians — an article about swept through The Interwebs discussing a couple who “have barely eaten for 9 years as they live off the universe’s energy.” The couple, who has two young kids, “survived on little else besides a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just 3 times per week since 2008.” The wife made it through pregnancy without eating, and they only eat on occasion now to share the experience with their children. This couple was not in fact Muslim, and they looked remarkably healthy, full of The Force or whatever mystical power is keeping them alive.
The second article was from the Washington Post, and discussed our hunger sensation and hunger cues. It focuses on how most of us no longer use our built in cues to know when it’s time to eat:
“By the time we are adults, we are well-practiced at ignoring our internal cues of hunger and fullness. We eat because we are compelled to finish what is heaped in front of us, because we “deserve” that doughnut after a long day’s work, because plowing through a bucket of popcorn is just what you do at the movies or because a TV ad sparks a chocolate craving.”
The article goes on to discuss the author’s recommendation of a “Hunger Continuum,” these occasional self-checks where you assign yourself a hunger score of 1-10 (1=famished, 5=neutral, 10=stuffed; she recommends eating at level 3).
The WaPo author has it right in the first part — the majority of adults going about our day-to-day and often sedentary lives do not eat because we’re hungry. We eat because it’s a routine, or because we’re tired, or because we’re stressed, or because we’re bored, or because we’re socializing, or because someone brought food to work, etc. Even when we have a good meal routine and eat only around the times we’re supposed to, many people load up full plates because the food is there, not because they’ve monitored their caloric intake or feel the hunger sensation that tells them how much they really need.
I’ve never tried assigning a hunger score to myself, however for most people stuck in a rut with bad eating habits, pausing and self-assigning a hunger score seems unlikely to really break them out of that rut. My guess is there is too much inertia and too many cultural and social cues that seem to prevent that from being effective for those who don’t already have a lot of self-discipline, which are the people that don’t really need to assign themselves hunger scores.
No, what most of us need to jolt us out of our eating doldrums is shock therapy. Enter the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is largely a month of sacrifice and of trying to obtain a deeper understanding of ones physical and spiritual needs. To most non-Muslims, fasting from roughly 3:40AM to 8:30PM in June (no food or water) sounds absolutely insane. Putting aside the religious background and sanity/insanity of the month, what Ramadan provides is shock therapy, particularly when it falls in the non-winter months.
During the summer when the fasts has been extremely long, sometimes I can’t even get myself up in the morning to eat breakfast (sehri) before sunrise, meaning that my fast extends from bedtime to the following evening. I hate breakfast, and waking up at 3am to eat a large meal is just incredibly difficult, so sometimes I just drink some water, and sometimes I just sleep through it.
At sunset, we break our fast with a light snack (Iftar), which is followed shortly afterwards by a full dinner. It’s during these summer fasts that my need for food or water or any sustenance is far less than I think.
Iftar is usually a very light meal — a tiny plate with some fruit, perhaps a couple samosas, and a drink, maybe ranging from 250-500 calories. Even on those days where I fasted for 20 hours, after just that small meal, I feel satiated. When the regular meal is served a short-time later, like a squirrel storing away nuts, I eat to store up food for the next day, not because of hunger. In fact, the lack of hunger is so noticeable, that eating the full meal sometimes makes me feel nauseated. I eat with my body actively telling me it doesn’t want the food.
Having these long fasts makes me acutely aware of when I am hungry, when I am thirsty, and when I am cranky because of those things. “Hangry” takes on a new term during Ramadan — it’s represents the true, physiologic feeling of needing calories to focus your mind and carry out your tasks and not lose your sh*t. It isn’t the feeling you get because you only had soup for lunch.
It’s on those days, or even the days where I actually am ill and can’t fast, where I realize that a few hundred calories and some water is enough. It’s those days that let me reset my hunger cues and truly understand when I am eating because my body needs it and not because I caught a glimpse of chocolate (or really anything sweet; I have a terrible sweet tooth).
Modern science has recently “discovered” that fasting may have some benefits, so it isn’t just us crazy Muslims that are fasting. Now there are some regular ol’ crazy folks doing it too (a co-worker of mine even participated in a study examining this, and at last check she maintained her intermittent fasting eating habits because she felt better and was healthier and realize she didn’t need as many calories as she used to eat).
So we’re now 2 weeks post Ramadan and I’ve managed to keep my eating relatively light, because I can recognize when I am hungry. Now, that didn’t stop me from eating 3 large pieces of chocolate out of the candy jar I keep on my office desk — that’s one of those cues I could do without — but I had a small breakfast, small lunch, small dinner, and can sit here close to bedtime after the family is asleep and realize that if I eat now it’s because I just want some ice cream, not because I’m hungry.
Unfortunately the Ramadan effect wanes for me over the course of the year. 45 weeks from now I will have slipped into some bad habits. However that’s the bright side of Ramadan — it lets me hit reset on myself every year. It’s a reminder that I have more than I need, eat more than I need, and is a reminder that most of the world gets by with far less than what most Americans consider essential. It’s part of why we celebrate Ramadan every year — the mind and the body need periodic reminders and refreshers about what’s important.
So for those of you who have fallen into an eating rut — sure, assign yourself a hunger score every few hours, but what you really need to do is just join us in a few weeks of fasting.
And in case you didn’t already know, there’s no such thing as a Breatharian. However if the energy of the universe provided the caloric equivalent of a giant samosa, then we would be on to something.