Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The art of not eating

Ammar Saad
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

A typical post-feast Ramadan table. Dessert is saturated in qatr, a 1:1 ratio of water and sugar infused with rose water (right).

Fasting has been considered a devoted act of worship for centuries.1 It unifies people of different languages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status in many world religions. Intentionally silencing the human instinct for food and drink may be considered masochism or futile asceticism by some, but for millions around the world, it represents the ultimate act of worship or prayer.

Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for millions of Muslims.2 It is a month to reflect, appreciate what you have, and feel the suffering of the poor through fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The yearning for a drop of water serves as an important reminder to be mindful of the less fortunate and marginalized around the world. Coming from a Muslim family, I was always fascinated that this ritual instantly humbled everyone, from the rich, the academic, and the religious leader, to the laborer and breadwinner.

Growing up, I had many questions regarding the experience of fasting and the resolutions reached after abstaining all day. My parents were able to answer all my questions but one: why did we end our fasting with large feasts that poor families could rarely afford?

I read books and asked experts about this, and realized that neither fasting nor religion dictates a feast to break our fast. Rather, it is ancient Arabic traditions that lead many fasting Muslims to this opulent behavior. Even with this new understanding of Arabic tradition, I remained unsettled.

For years, I had forgotten the true meaning of Ramadan fasting. Like many others, I have followed community traditions and fallen into decadent and unhealthy eating habits and sleeping schedules that left me feeling less satisfied with my Ramadan experience. Many physicians around the world have discussed the dangers of fasting followed by feasting,3 but millions still follow the tradition, arguing as though in rebellious solidarity that communities have done this for years without harm. But the practice of feasting may not only be unhealthy, but also take away the true meaning of fasting.

In the spirit of practicing my faith in the context of my new life in Canada, I decided to take on a personal experiment. I wanted to fully experience fasting in quest of spirituality and intimacy, rather than the fasting linked to celebratory feasts passed down from certain Arabic traditions. During the 2018 Ramadan, I followed societal and religious methods of fasting to investigate an approach to the spiritual fulfillment I had been lacking.

During the first half of Ramadan, I adapted a fasting lifestyle popular in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt. I would sleep until the early evening and wake up by sunset, famished and ready to eat. As my clock announced the official time to end my fast, I would say a short prayer as my eyes gazed at a table full of delicious, mouthwatering dishes. I anxiously awaited the end of my verbal prayer so that I could start devouring whatever my hands could reach. A typical fast-breaking table includes sambousek as a starter; a deep fried pastry similar to spring rolls, filled with cheese, ground beef, or both. The more financially and socially privileged a family is, the more deep-fried appetizers they would have on their table. As the meal went on, I would eat rice-based dishes that remained incomplete without the addition of large amounts of ghee. The process of making ghee is similar to that of butter, but ghee involves simmering butter into a nutty-tasting aromatic ingredient.4 Arabic cultures compete in how “authentic” and “Arabic” their ghee is, and the number of ladles of ghee added to recipes is a mark of prestige. As my high-fat and high-glycemic meal concluded, I would expect a traditional dessert to follow. Regardless of how the dessert is made, it usually includes qatr, a syrup infused with rose water that saturates desserts an hour prior to serving. Eating continues as the night progresses. People snack for as long as they can while engaging in simple social activities, whether alternating between television channels, enjoying a friendly conversation with neighbors, relatives, and friends, or simply shopping for clothes after midnight in vibrant non-sleeping cities.

The second meal comes an hour before sunrise because it serves as nutritional fuel for the entire day. Carbohydrate-rich foods reign supreme at this meal as well, such as bread, pies, and pastries. People drink water in excess until minutes before the official declaration of sunrise, in an attempt to have some reserve in their bodies to relinquish their thirst during the day. As the days passed, I noticed that I was tired most of the day, unable to concentrate on my daily activities. I was too hungry and nutrient-deprived during the day, and too full to even breathe at night. By the end of the first fifteen days, I had gained more than twenty pounds and felt miserable. I was anxious and committed to move into the second phase of the experiment, firm in my resolve to see if there was more to Ramadan than eating uncontrollably at night and feeling famished all day.

For the second part of my experiment, I combined old religious eating rituals that most Muslims seem to have forgotten5 with new evidence-based nutritional guidelines that are applied throughout the world by dietitians and nutritional experts.6 As the time came for my sixteenth “breakfast,” I started my meal with a short prayer that lasted less than thirty seconds. My prayer was immediately followed by three sips of water with seconds of rest in between, relaxing the muscles of my stomach as described in old Islamic testimonials. This was followed by eating three dates that are dense in simple carbohydrates to help nourish my mind and body.7 I could already feel a difference as my meal moved forward slowly and smoothly. Soup was a healthy addition to my meal, a simple dish that added few calories to my count but assisted with my thirst, added more water to my body, and relaxed my stomach more for what was ahead. I substituted the fried appetizers with fresh salad, and in case of a severe craving, I had baked spring rolls instead of deep fried ones. By this point in my meal, I was not full, but my food cravings had all been taken care of. My main dish would consist of foods rich in protein and healthy fats such as salmon, chicken breasts, avocado, and sirloin beef cuts. Carbohydrate-rich rice contributed a proportion of my calories but became a side dish rather than a main. I continued using ghee but in moderation, adding as much as a teaspoon to my pot for flavor. I started walking every day after sunset for an hour or so, as I have always found brisk walking to be a moderate yet effective activity for weight loss.8 An hour of walking after a light breakfast helped circulate blood through my body and enhanced my digestion.

Throughout the night, I would find myself craving the old snacks and desserts I had enjoyed before. Even though I would ignore most of my cravings until they faded, I gave in to some, but in a more moderate, less indulging way. I substituted fatty and sugary snacks for a handful of almonds, a small bowl of lightly salted popcorn, or simple vegetables and fruits. I realized that as long as I was munching on something, I would experience less hunger and feel more satisfied before sunrise. I even changed the second meal from a large feast to a simple one, such as a fruit salad or oats with raisins. I started feeling more energized and less fatigued during the day. I was able to work full-time without the need for extended breaks or taking a vacation for the entire month. Ramadan had changed from a debilitating experience into a more enlightening one.

As Ramadan concluded, I realized that if one is fasting from sunrise to sunset to feel the suffering of the poor and underprivileged, it does not serve Ramadan’s case to eat like the wealthy afterwards. It is by simplifying and going back to the simple reasons people fast that one can feel the intimacy of such a devoted act of worship. Culture has an important influence on our eating habits, but it is up to us to decide which cultural traditions we want to include in our lives.


  1. Insol, Timothy, ed. The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of ritual and religion. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  2. Insol, Timothy, ed. The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of ritual and religion. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  3. Berry, Sarah. “The risks and benefits of fasting during Ramadan (https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/heal th-and-wellness/the-risks-and-benefits-of-fasting-during-ramadan-20170525-gwcz8q.html.)” The Sydney Morning Herald (2017).
  4. Railton, David. “Is ghee more healthful than butter? (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321707.php.)” Medical News Today (2018).
  5. Al-Fawzan, Salih. A summary of Islamic Jurisprudence. Al-Maiman Publishing House, 2005.
  6. Wheelock, Verner, ed. Implementing dietary guidelines for health eating. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 1997.
  7. Elliot, Brianna. “8 Proven Health Benefits of Dates (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-dates)” Healthline.com (2018).
  8. Hijikata, Yamada. “Walking just after a meal seems to be more effective for weight loss than waiting for one hour to walk after a meal” International Journal of General Medicine, Vol.4, (2011) p.447-450.

AMMAR SAAD is a senior medical student at Damascus Medical School. He migrated to Canada in 2017 and is currently working as a research assistant at the Bruyère Research Institute while pursuing his medical career. He has a passion for cooking and trying different cultures and cuisines.

Summer 2018



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