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How I struggled with disordered eating during Ramadan

By Aymen Sherwani, April 19 2023

The holy month of Ramadan is observed by 1.8 Muslims in Canada and over 1.9 billion worldwide every year, during which they fast from sunrise to sunset as a time of inner reflection and spiritual awareness. While some of the shortest fasts in the world, in accordance with geographic situatedness, are from 12-14 hours, others abstain from food and water for over 18 hours. This isn’t easy — and is by no means a compulsion in religion if you’re unable to do so due to pre-existing health conditions like pregnancy, menstruation, illnesses related to old age, and chronic diseases. But what about mental illnesses triggered by too much food or the lack thereof, such as some eating disorders? 

There has existed this notion in the Muslim community that someone who exhibits strong faith is a person who fasts despite physical illnesses, old age or disease — the idea that intentionally placing your body in such a vulnerable and compromising situation — somehow reaps greater spiritual rewards than someone who abstains from fasting within their own right. The more self-sacrificial you are determines how worthy of a Muslim you are to others — so the admission that you’re struggling is an admission of weakness. Yes, there is a growing acceptance of individuals being able to abstain from long hours without food and water without fasting, but shouldn’t mental health conditions that are exacerbated by fasting be given the same validity? 

An eating disorder, as explained by the British Dietetic Association, is a form of a mental illness where food is used to cope with difficult internal or external circumstances like abuse or feelings of low self-worth but may result in an individual engaging in patterns of severe underconsumption or overconsumption in relationship to their mental wellbeing. It is a legitimate mental illness that directly causes physiological harm to those who experience it, but despite this, Muslims with eating disorders are often told that it’s “all in their head” or that their struggles with food and body image mean that they are “self-absorbed.” I say that because these things have been said to me, as I fasted while struggling with disordered eating, and understand that many others have been subject to the same pressure.  

As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, and makes sure to eat a small and nutritious meal every 3 hours to keep my mind and body at peace, fasting for 13-18 hours used to really impact my ability to retain a positive relationship with food. Throughout the day I fell into a mindset of starvation-related depression that impacted my ability to stay spiritual or even do basic tasks like study, meet work deadlines or get out of bed. As iftar — the time to break fast — approached, I found myself viewing dinner as a celebratory meal and often allowed myself to overindulge, which is often encouraged in communal eating settings. This would be followed by extreme feelings of guilt for having a full stomach, low self-worth and convincing myself to skip breakfast. This would only lead me to be in a worse condition for my next fasting period and create a cycle of starvation, overindulgence and guilt that would repeat until the end of the month that would be followed by feelings of needing to overcompensate for the loss-of-eating time. It caused me to stop listening to my body’s intuition related to hunger and instead led me to become more attuned to emotional eating in the months that followed.

It is also important to note that, because iftar is a communal eating setting, it is less socially acceptable to complain about the nature of the food that is served and prepared. Although the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) often broke his fasts with dates and water, contemporary Ramadans involve at least five different types of fried and high-sodium appetizers that people fill up with prior to a little too much rice and pita bread with a side of potatoes and greasy meats. Those who already struggle to navigate their relationship with food may find that they have no choice but to consume foods that may trigger stress responses because they don’t want to be seen as ungrateful. A major reason why many Muslims fast is to remind themselves of the privileges they are blessed with in comparison to those who experience food insecurity — so to complain that food isn’t up to health standards is often met with swift verbal condescension and the reminder that some people have nothing. These social pressures make it truly difficult for someone who has a precarious relationship with food to not give in to the aforementioned cycle. 

The way that I’m currently navigating fasting as a Muslim who has healed her relationship with food is not being afraid to fight for my physical well-being anymore. What this entails is making the effort to advocate for healthier options on the iftar table and reminding myself not to resort to overindulgence. Instead, I eat a small snack every 30-40 minutes and prioritize food packed with nutrition instead of foods I know have been directly related to my food-related anxiety. In that sense, it’s easier to understand that food is not my enemy but, rather, my body is a garden that requires time and care to maintain. Both neglect and overwatering will do nothing. 

I am someone who does fast and is able to maintain a healthy relationship with food now. At the same time, there needs to be greater acceptance of eating disorders as a very real mental illness that should be considered as a struggle large enough to be exempt from fasting. This would be with the understanding that such circumstances could exacerbate someone’s mental health condition that extends to coping with issues such as domestic violence and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The sooner the Muslim community is more accepting of dialogue surrounding mental health, abuse and disordered eating, the better it will have an understanding of how to support those at its margins. In a way, the health of the community is dependent on it recognizing the health of those who comprise it. 

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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