Ramadan & Eating Disorders

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is a holy month of significance for Muslims. It is a period of 29-30 days where Muslims are challenged to increase in all forms of worship, revive their awareness of God and in turn, achieve a deeper connection. An integral expression of this is demonstrated through spiritual fasting (sawm).

Spiritual fasting involves abstaining from eating or drinking from dawn until sunset. The intention behind spiritual fasting distinguishes the act from other forms of fasting which may be intended for weight control or influencing metabolism.

For Muslims, fasting in Ramadan is a shared experience and therefore increases community connection. It is obligatory on all those who are capable (physically, financially, mentally etc) and of mature age (passed age of puberty). There are many conditions and circumstances, however, that exempt followers from needing to fast, especially if it poses a significant threat to a person’s health and well-being.

Every year, there will be millions of Muslims around the world who are unable to or struggle to fast due to their situation (including an active eating disorder). There are concessions that exist and can be verified by local religious leaders (e.g. an Imam). Nevertheless, the nature of an eating disorder is inherently encouraging of fasting and restriction and an eating disorder gaining control can be seamlessly disguised as religious practice. This can make seeking help extremely difficult and lead to feelings of shame, dismay and isolation.

Things to consider around Ramadan and eating disorder recovery

Eating disorders exist in all community groups and Ramadan can be a challenging time for Muslims who have an active eating disorder or lived experience of one.

A daily cycle exists of waking up early to eat, fasting during daylight, followed by breaking the fast at sunset. For a person who is unwell with an eating disorder, this cycle can trigger eating disorder thoughts and can even be contrary to their prescribed treatment. If this is the experience for you or someone you know, it is important to consider the following:

  • You are not alone
  • Speak to your GP about accessing professional support if you have not yet done so
  • It is recommended to discuss your concerns with your treatment team and religious leader (e.g. an Imam) ahead of time in order to plan for Ramadan
  • You may be able to decide on an adapted fasting schedule according to your needs and progress in recovery (e.g. fasting alternate days or fasting on shorter days of the year)
  • Reflect on your intention behind fasting – are you fasting to express your religious beliefs or are you intending weight loss? Are you finding it impossible to eat sufficiently before dawn? Are you feeling this urge to delay breaking fast at sunset?
  • If there is a supportive person in your family or community that you can talk to, it can be helpful to do so. There can be a lot of focus and conversation around food during Ramadan which is anxiety-provoking and having someone to turn may help you navigate that.
  • It may be that you are not medically safe to participate in fasting at your current stage of recovery and that’s OK. Focusing on recovery today can mean that you can observe Ramadan more fully in the future.

Even if you are currently unable to fast, you can choose to explore the many other ways of practicing your faith that are also encouraged in Ramadan.

Other ways to participate in Ramadan
  • Prayer and practicing mindfulness
  • Donating time/clothes/food/money to people in need
  • Preparing meals for others
  • Attending Friday or night prayers at the local Mosque
  • Appreciating that seeking treatment, taking steps towards recovery is honourable and an act of worship itself

Eid celebrations

As with the case of Ramadan, Eid can be wonderful celebration with family and friends for millions of people worldwide. However, for people with an eating disorder, it can be an incredibly challenging experience. They may even dread the day.

Festivities, like Eid, will almost always involve special food in abundance and cultural traditions which can be triggering. In the lead up to Eid, it’s important that you express any fears you have with your support network (e.g. your treatment team, partner or family member). This can help you feel prepared and a sense of safety.

Journaling is a great way to put words to some of the emotions we feel and a useful release in addition to voicing our concerns with others. We can also use a journal to plan ahead for the festive day which could involve setting reminders to eat regular meals and snacks, scheduling time to check-in with ourselves and rest.

If there are some aspects of Eid that are more confronting for you (e.g. menu planning/cooking), then you might like to involve yourself with other aspects instead (e.g. decorating your home or organising gifts).

We can accept that some level of anxiety is to be expected and that it’s okay to have these feelings. Remind yourself that, like any other day, the day will pass. Try your best to be kind to yourself.

About the Author:

Aneela Panhwar is a Accredited Practising Dietician who currently works at Mind Body Well – https://www.mindbodywell.com.au/aneela-panhwar 

Aneela graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012 and has been an Accredited Practising Dietitian for 10 years. During this time, she has enjoyed working with clients of all ages and community groups.

Aneela’s passion lies in assisting clients to understand their relationship with food and empowering people to use nutrition as a means to achieving their life goals.

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