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The far-reaching health benefits of fasting

September 03, 2010 11:52 IST

Besides its spiritual significance, religious fasting translates into several health benefits for those who go through with it.

The month of Ramzan and Shravan (fifth month of the Hindu calendar, and the holiest month of the year) is underway and during this month, both Muslims and Hindus observe fasts daily as part of their religious and community practices. Religious fasting entails abstaining from consumption of food, tobacco, alcohol, non-vegetarian food (meat, eggs, fish etc) and sexual intimacy between couples during the fasting period.

The fasting period is long and difficult and comes with many restrictions. These restrictions, however, have far-reaching benefits on your health. We keep hearing about how eating a healthy diet is good for you. A healthy diet imparts all the right nutrients to your body to keep it strong, and cuts the risk of serious ailments such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. Abstaining from consumption of alcohol, tobacco and red meat further helps to cut the risk of the above health problems as has been proven by past research.

Red meat

According to research, a higher intake of red meat is associated with an increased risk of cancer as well as overall deaths.

There are several mechanisms by which meat may be associated with death, the researchers noted: for example, cancer-causing compounds are formed when meat is cooked at high temperature.

Meat also is a major source of saturated fat, and has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer. In addition, lower meat intake has been linked to a reduction in risk factors for heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Red meat, a recent research says, increases heart disease risk by 30 percent. Higher consumption of red meat sharply increases the risk of heart disease, says the study conducted by researchers of Harvard School of Public Health. In contrast, noted the study, Americans women who ate more protein-rich foods instead of red meat had a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease.

Eating more fresh red meat, processed red meat and high-fat dairy carried an increased risk of heart disease. Women who had two servings of red meat per day compared to those who had half a serving per day had a 30 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The study indicated that making substitutes for red meat or minimising the amount of red meat in your diet has important and far-reaching health benefits.

In order to reduce the risk of heart disease it is necessary to consider replacing red meat with other protein-rich foods such as low-fat dairy products, nuts and fish, for instance.

A vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet, especially rich in fibre and healthy fats such as fruits, vegetables and nuts can help improve the health of the body. Research has shown how a plant-based diet is good for people who have or are at a high risk of type 2 diabetes. Diabetics are said to improve glycemic and lipid control when they consume a low-fat vegan diet.

Studies have also suggested that people who do not eat meat have a lower risk of prostate and gastrointestinal cancers.

Vegetarian diets rich in fibre (fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates), carotenoids (found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach), vitamins, minerals, and isoflavones (found in soybeans and legumes) have protective effects from serious diseases, including cancer.

Alcohol

One major restriction during fasting, uniform across all religions and communities is consumption of alcohol. Drinking is associated with increasing the risk of high blood sugar. Alcohol, being high in calories, increases blood sugar. In excess, it prevents the liver from releasing sugar into the blood, leading to hypoglycemia or very low blood sugar levels.

Alcohol interferes with the functioning of the central nervous system, impairing normal coordination, dulling the senses, and delaying the quickness with which you react to stimulus. Excess drinking damages muscles in the heart, raises blood pressure, increases triglycerides in blood and causes irregular heart beat. It increases your chances of suffering a heart failure or having a stroke. Alcohol is an important risk factor for heart disease that only becomes more potent when combined with smoking.

Addiction to drinking leads to thinning of bones and interferes with calcium absorption, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Besides, it is known to cause damage to the stomach and pancreas, hampering digestion and metabolism. Alcohol consumption, if not moderated, affects the drinker's sex life and can cause infertility. Excess drinking has also been linked with the onset of cancers, notably of the breast, mouth, esophagus, larynx, liver, rectum and throat.

Heavy drinking is particularly bad for the liver as it may cause inflammation and ultimately cirrhosis of the liver. Women who drink during their pregnancy increase their chances of giving birth to babies with birth defects.

Smoking

Drinking when combined with smoking doubles the risk of the early onset of hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Smoking significantly increases the risk of heart disease by raising the bad cholesterol levels in your blood, and increasing your risk of a heart attack.

When you smoke, you put yourself at risk of respiratory diseases like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which damages the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchi or large airways).

Smoking is one of the main reasons for increasing the risk of cancers of all types, including that of the kidney and bladder.

Serious ailments apart, there are several side effects of smoking:

Studies have showed that long-time smokers have higher rate of decline in memory and reasoning ability in their middle ages. Smokers develop facial wrinkles earlier than others -- the tar in the cigarettes is not only toxic to the skin cells; it also decreases the vascular supply to all parts of the body, and thereby damages your appearance. Smoking stains your teeth and fingers to an unpleasant yellow colour. You may develop a decreased sense of smell and taste as well.

Clearly, the restrictions imposed during the fasting period, therefore, take into account health concerns that may incur due to the consumption of the above, perhaps for more than spiritual reasons.

Eating a healthy diet comprising all essential nutrients required for the body, and following a healthy lifestyle increases your chances of a better and long life.

Image: The devout break their fast after sunset during Ramzan.

Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters


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