It took me years to realize that the quality of my life, my health, and my productivity were directly related to the relationship I had with food. Controlling my diet has been an essential step to controlling my life.
I grew up a very average Muslim American kid: middle-class family, the middle child, chubby cheeks. In grade school, I realized how much food meant to me. I was one of the few kids who would go for second and third servings. Butter and cheese became staples in my diet. They were my finger foods, appetizers, and entrees. I would transform my bland American school lunch to a more savoury meal by adding them on as condiments.
It’s true; butter makes everything better. I think my Hyderabadi genetics has something to do with it, but I digress. Over the years I have battled obesity, chronic fatigue, and excessive sleepiness. I have also been in college sports, engineering school, corporate consulting, medical school, and am now balancing a professional life with fatherhood.
The journey has been difficult and I couldn’t have done it without a few Islamic principles to guide my way.
1). You are WHEN you eat, so stop grazing
Before starting medical school I decided I would memorize Qur’an. I would wake up, have a bite to eat, pray, read Qur’an, eat breakfast, feel tired, take a nap, read some more Qur’an, eat lunch, read Qur’an, go to the Masjid, hang out with friends, sleep and repeat. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far in my Qur’an studies. I did come across an ayah that would take me another two years of medical school to understand.
“Indeed, Allah will admit those who have believed and done righteous deeds to gardens beneath which rivers flow, but those who disbelieve enjoy themselves and eat as grazing livestock eat, and the Fire will be a residence for them.” [Qur’an: Chapter 47, Verse 12]
The highlighted aspect in this ayah is the method by which cattle consume food. Cattle are constantly eating throughout the day. They are shuffled from one field to the next to seek out more grass to feed on. Their bodies can handle this because their digestive system consists of multiple extra stomachs to process this food.
Humans on the other hand only have one stomach. I was living my life constantly grazing on snacks. As I grazed I would think about when and where I would be eating my next meal, only to feast and repeat the process once again.
The human body was not meant to graze on food. The human stomach, intestines, pancreas, and other digestive organs are uniquely created to secrete digestive enzymes. These enzymes help break down our food. Like an assembly line in a factory, the food makes its way through each stage of the gastrointestinal system being catalyzed and absorbed to varying degrees. By continuously grazing on food, we never let the assembly line rest, repair and recover from the process. The system becomes more prone to backlog and breakdown. That’s why we see now an increased prevalence of chronic constipation, pancreatic burnout – a form of diabetes, and other metabolic conditions. Herein you start to appreciate some of the health benefits of restraining our food consumption through fasting.
Fasting was a practice of Muslims not just during Ramadan but a lifestyle choice throughout the year. Many different variations have been mentioned in our tradition: Mondays and Thursdays, every other day, three days a month. So when I learned about intermittent fasting, it felt innately Islamic. Intermittent fasting as a modern construct consists of restricting the number of hours one eats during the week. It comes in many forms. E.g. going for two ’24 hours’ days in a week without food/caloric intake; restricting the number of hours of caloric consumption to 6 during the day, etc.
When I first started intermittent fasting, I was visiting rural West Africa to provide specialized neurological training to their medical professionals. There was a stark contrast between ‘those with access to monetary wealth’ and ‘those without’ in their eating habits. Those who had would have eating habits similar to mine. They also suffered from obesity and diabetes just like the rest of the developing world. Those who didn’t have ate fewer meals in the day and more out of necessity. They generally seemed more energetic and happy. I knew I had to make a change.
I decided to do an 18:6 version of intermittent fasting because of its similarity to Ramadan fasting. Eat only in 6 hours during the day drink only water for the remainder. The first couple of weeks were hard, but I was in it in the long run. It also helped that I didn’t have easy access to food in West Africa. I lost a lot of weight in those months and continued to cycle on and off intermittent fasting even when I returned to the US. 12 months later, I was ecstatic about the progress I had made. Friends who hadn’t seen me in years, couldn’t recognize me. But there was still one thing I didn’t notice much of a difference in which is my energy level.
2). You are WHAT you eat, so eat the right things
I have chronic fatigue and daytime sleepiness. I can pretty much fall asleep anywhere. My resting heart rate stays below 60. It’s not because I am athletic, it’s just a feature of my incredibly slow metabolism. Bear with me a moment as I will get a little scientific describing energy and metabolism.
To understand human energy at the cellular level you must understand the basics of anabolism, catabolism, and how they compete. Anabolism, put simply, is the process of building and regenerating. Catabolism is the process of breaking down. Typically the body uses glucose for metabolism and energy. Without glucose, the cells shut down. (There are exceptions to this if you learn about ketones). It’s like having a power outage in your home. No power to the home, no air conditioning, and no wifi. Anabolism requires proteins and to a lesser extent carbohydrates. When the body is in a fasted state, it doesn’t have the sugars needed to be happy so it starts breaking down fats and proteins. This is an exhausting process. So when fasting, not only is it really hard to build muscle (because your body is busy breaking it down), you feel exhausted all the time.
If you’re not eating the right foods– the foods that are good for you– the fatigue and exhaustion will compound over time. It will make fasting and intermittent fasting a painstaking effort.
“O mankind, eat from whatever is on earth [that is] lawful and good and do not follow the footsteps of Satan.” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 168]
In this ayah (verse), Allah commands us to not just eat food that is ‘Halal’ (lawful) but also food that is ‘Tayyib’ (good). Food being ‘Tayyib’ means a lot of different things to different people. The source of the food should be ethical. The processing of the food should be natural. To me, the macronutrient composition of the food should also be ‘good’ for you.
This requires familiarity with your own dietary goals, your eating habits, food preferences, cultural tendencies, and -if you want to get real fancy- analyzing your gut microbiome. This is also where the dietary fads come into the picture: Juice only, Whole 30, Adkins, Modified Adkins, Gluten-free, Ketogenic, etc.
As a neurologist, while caring for children with neuropsychiatric conditions, I sometimes prescribe these for my patients. Each child and their family respond differently and require a uniquely tailored nutrition plan. Nothing fits perfectly for everyone at all times. What I do recommend though is to find an approach which is sustainable for you. When I started monitoring and regulating my own macronutrient intake and eating ‘Tayyib’ food I started to notice a new found energy. I had a renewed level of mental control and clarity.
3). You are HOW you eat, so avoid ‘israaf’ (excessiveness)
I love food. I’ve spent hours researching the menus on local restaurants to plan out my week. When I travel, where I eat and what I eat become my most memorable excursions. When getting cheeseburgers, I’ve ordered the double or triple patty. And that takes second to the joy of succulent all-you-can-eat buffets. All of this makes this third principle the most difficult for me to practice. It is also the most important to my longevity.
“O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.” [Qur’an: Chapter 7, Verse 31]
Simple enough. Principle 3 is don’t be excessive in what you eat. Israaf in food means to overdo it, to eat excessively.
Slowing down is the best way to avoid Israaf. The reason why it’s so easy to overeat is that your body takes around 20 minutes to register that it’s full. But when you finish your food in 5 minutes and you think you have space for more, by the time you finish your seconds and thirds, you feel lethargic and about to explode. By slowing down and being conscious of what you’re eating, you can give your body a chance to catch up to your brain and hear the signals to eat the right amount.
This is how the Prophet implemented it: Miqdam bin Madikarib said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say: ‘A human being fills no worse vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight. But if he must (fill it), then one third of food, one third for drink and one third for air.’” [Ibn Majah]
For someone who is a true connoisseur of food like myself, this hadith becomes really challenging. Both the ayah and this hadith I have read and been taught as a child. But I can honestly say I never really learned to implement them. Understanding the harm I have been doing to my body by overeating started to help.
Let’s review a little more science to elucidate- last time I promise. When you consume food- your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin tells your cells to grab onto the glucose in your bloodstream (the glucose that came from food) and uptake it. So your brain, muscles, and liver, all uptake glucose when insulin is around. Cells like to use sugar for energy but they don’t like to swim in it. If you eat too much, your insulin levels will spike to keep your blood sugar level from getting too high. When your insulin level spikes, your liver takes up more glucose; so now your brain has less glucose. That’s one of the main reasons people experience food coma if they eat too much.
Eating too much food at any one time can make us more exhausted and lazy. When this happens we may then seek out more food or ‘energy drinks’ to give us another energy boost. The process of overconsumption triggers a desire for even more consumption. This cycle is antithetical to productivity. Over time, chronic overconsumption causes pancreatic burnout, insulin resistance syndrome, an excessive fatigue. All of this prevents us from fulfilling the purpose of our spiritual existence and reduces our productivity.
Food is a blessing and pleasure. The purpose of food is to keep our backs straight, to enhance our productivity. We must learn to moderate our portions by controlling how much we eat, what we eat, and when we eat. Through the mastery of our diet, we will be able to master our bodies and our minds. Seek out foods which are not just Halal for you, but also Tayyib for you. Drink as much water as you eat. And lastly, I encourage you to practice fasting.
Can you relate to this story? Tell us what have been your biggest dietary challenges and how you are working on solving them.
Written by Dr Safi Shareef