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‘Fasting not feasting’: Muslims remain divided over festivity excesses during Ramadan

Email Ramadan is a month of self-discipline but many Muslims remain divided over festivity excesses By Erwin Renaldi and Alan Weedon

Posted May 12, 2019 05:26:18

Looking down a well-appointed alleyway, you see a large mosque with a gold-top in the distance, lined with food stalls. Photo: In countries like Singapore, Ramadan is an opportunity to stage food and drink festivals. (Flickr: Choo Yut Shing) Related Story: Ramadan: What is it? When is it? And why does it matter? Related Story: My journey to Mecca during the month of Ramadan Related Story: What it's like to have an eating disorder during Ramadan Related Story: Ramadan: Five foods to break the fast Map: Australia

With Ramadan underway, over a billion people around the world are now observing the holy month by fasting — a practice intended to encourage Muslims to reflect on their daily habits and spirituality through piety and self-discipline.

Key points:

  • Many people gain weight during the holy month due to elaborate iftar meals
  • An Imam in Melbourne reminds Muslims to focus on the spiritual goals
  • Environmentalists are concerned over increases in food wastage during Ramadan

But while the month is widely acknowledged for the difficulties observers face abstaining from food and water from dawn to dusk, the festivities involved and how they are practiced in the modern era often leads to counterintuitive effects, like significant weight gain and food waste.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam — the key requirements of the religion — and abstinence extends beyond food, to other vices including smoking and sexual relations.

My experience travelling to Mecca

Erwin Renaldi shares his personal experiences making the journey from Australia to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest cities, during the month of Ramadan

But iftar — the meal that breaks the fast at sunset — can often become an extravagant affair where an excess of food is prepared and consumed, and food wastage levels can escalate due to a variety of factors ranging from a commercialisation of the holy month to the generosity of hosts who overcook for events.

Dr Bekim Hasani Imam of the Albanian Australian Islamic Society told the ABC that Ramadan should be a time to "reflect on the lives of people who are in constant hunger".

"Unfortunately, there are also a lot of Muslims gaining weight instead of gaining rewards this holy month," he said.

"People often focus on what kind of iftar meal they should have, who they should invite, or what restaurant to pick."

Fasting sometimes begets waste

A large Middle Eastern food with rice and meats Photo: Many restaurants and hotels offer extravagant iftar deals during the month of Ramadan. (Flickr: CC / pinayflyinghigh)

Meanwhile, as extravagant iftar meals and fast-breaking takes place, many Muslims remain divided over the reality that during a month of restraint and generosity, food wastage often goes up as restaurants over-deliver at the end of the day's fast and families prepare more food than their stomachs can hold.

Parongpong Waste Management, a recycling centre based in West Java, Indonesia, told the ABC that in Jakarta alone — the capital city of the largest Muslim country in the world — there was an additional 200 tonnes of waste during Ramadan last year.

Ramadan with an eating disorder

Ramadan with an eating disorder
For Muslims living with eating disorders, the monthlong fast and nightly feasts of Ramadan pose complex issues and heightened risks.

"It was a combination of food waste and food packaging, including plastic," said Gadis Prameswari, the centre's founder who is also a practicing Muslim.

"This is very alarming, because outside of Ramadan, Indonesia is already one of the largest food wasters in the world."

During Ramadan, restaurants and food courts, as well as hotels in many Muslim countries offer full iftar packages including multiple-course meals with entrees and desserts, a significant contrast to the lessons of Islam's prophet Mohammed who is believed to have advocated breaking the fast with some dry dates and milk.

"From our observation the waste came from [shopping] malls and restaurants, where people ordered too much food that they could not finish," Ms Prameswari said.

'Indulging too much is actually prohibited in the Koran'

Muslims at prayer during Ramadan Photo: The self-restraint enforced during Ramadan is designed to foster critical spiritual reflection. (Flickr: Chaoyue Pan)

Dr Bekim Hasani, who is also Imam of the Albanian Mosque in Carlton, believes culture is the main reason for over-consumption as the community focuses on serving elaborate meals to family and friends as they break the day's fast.

"But indulging in too much food and an extravagant lifestyle in Islam is actually prohibited in the Koran," he said.

Dr Bekim urged Muslim communities around the world to refine their aims for Ramadan by worshipping God and doing more charities for the less fortunate rather than treating it as "a month of feasting".

A man wearing Islamic cloth and sitting on the floor Photo: Imam Bekim Hasani urged the Muslim community to avoid over-consumption during Ramadan. (ABC News: Erwin Renaldi)

Dietician Katherine Baqleh of Health Victory Nutrition also added that a tendency to consume more fatty foods after the day's fast is another key reason for weight gain during Ramadan.

"People might want to compensate what they're missing out in the day, so they might end up focussing on high fat or high calorie foods in order to sustain them," she told the ABC.

"The biggest concern is when they consume these foods in the late evening: people are less active so more of the calories consumed are stored."

Higher calorie consumption leads to higher blood sugar and cholesterol, Ms Baqleh said, as well as a reduction in sleep quality, which promotes fat storage through the release of the hormone cortisol.

You see a vibrant market stall packed with food items as people are interspersed between the aisles buying goods. Photo: Those fasting are advised to consume foods that release energy slowly over the course of the day. (Flickr: Choo Yut Shing)

'Physical world of abundance, mental world of denial'

But despite the difficulties associated with weight gain and inner-community criticisms of excess during the month, Brigid Delaney, author of Wellmania: Misadventures in the Search of Wellness, says that Western society could learn a lot about the struggles of others through the practice of Ramadan.

"We have a lot of ease in our society, a lot of comfort, but during Ramadan, people all around us are showing self-control and restraint and sacrifice when they practise their religion," Ms Delaney said.

"It's about being uncomfortable in your practice of faith — and there's a lesson in that."

Why fasting can be good for you

Why fasting can be good for you
Many religions involve periods of fasting, such as the Muslim month of Ramadan and the Christian month of Lent. There are health benefits, whether you do it for religious reasons or not.

Ms Delaney told the ABC that fasting in our society of abundance can often be quite a shock.

"To go into a situation where you choose not to have food, there's such a big disconnect between living in the physical world of abundance and the mental world of denial."

After a fortnight of no food, she had to eat half a cucumber, an egg, and 50 grams of chicken sequentially at the fast's close to prevent refeeding syndrome, where the body goes into shock if a substantial quantity of food is eaten after a long fast.

"During my research for the book, I was very surprised at the lack of science and studies about what fasting does physiologically to the body," Ms Delaney said.

"Especially considering how many people in the world are Muslim and adhere to Ramadan."

Topics: islam, religion-and-beliefs, health, food-and-cooking, australia, asia, indonesia

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