Women, Ramadan, and Food

It’s Ask a Science Blogger time again….

…A reader asks: Is severely regulating your diet for a month each year, as Muslims do during Ramadan, good for you?

Here’s hoping my doctor and pharmacist SiBlings will take on this question and give us a medical perspective. I’m going to approach “is it good for you?” from some other directions.

In this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, ten women share memories of Ramadan, traditions from their home countries, and offer up a few family recipes. Ramadan and fasting sounds like it is very good for them.

In Istanbul, women embroider handkerchiefs and fill them with money and gifts for the small children. Belkis Karaman’s family often had 13 or 14 people over to break the day’s fast, and inviting guests over is a tradition she continues today.

Nighat Ali, a native of Pakistan who lives in Ross, has lived in the United States since her marriage 24 years ago. One Ramadan tradition she brought from Pakistan is a “girls’ night out” in which she and her daughters sing happy songs and decorate their hands with henna, a temporary tattoo. “I did my best to teach my girls all these things — I believe in tradition. Tradition and religion go hand in hand.”

[Gissou Raji, from Iran, says] “The main purpose [of fasting] is the discipline. Discipline can take you a long way in life. And when you are hungry yourself, you really know how poor people feel.”

Some groups of people are exempt from the fast: children before the age of puberty, the very elderly, and those with medical conditions such that fasting would be unhealthy or dangerous for them. Wikipedia lists people with diabetes, and nursing and pregnant women in the latter category. (I think I would be exempt from fasting because skipping meals or even waiting too long to eat one is a migraine trigger for me.) Mainly the very healthy in the prime of life are expected to do the fasting. Seems sensible to me.

According to Wikipedia, menstruating women are not allowed to fast. Why does every culture have a thing with the menstruating women? Of course, they have to make up the missed days later on. Just like when you are out sick from school and you have to do the homework anyway.

During a back channel discussion of this question prior to its officially becoming an Ask a Science Blogger question, someone jokingly wondered, if fasting alternated with binge eating was “good” for you, “are we going to soon see a book on “The Ramadan Diet?” So here, did “good” for you meant “you’ll lose weight”?

My immediate reaction was: we’ve already seen that book. You’ll find it under a different title, though, in books that discuss eating disorders of teenage girls. Anorexia, binge eating, and then bulimia, which I admit is not a feature of Ramadan, but would, I suspect, be part of any aspiring teenage girl’s Ramadan Diet plan. According to the National Eating Disorders Association,

as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Approximately 25 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder…Because of the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases are probably not reported. In addition, many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. For example, it has been shown that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance.

But here’s the saddest statistic of all on the NEDA web page:
42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.

I am fortunate that I have always loved eating and have never had a disordered eating attitude; I have only been part of that 80% of American women who are dissatisfied with their appearance. When I was 19, I weighed 115 pounds (I am 5 feet 4 inches tall), and that’s when I met my first husband. We married when I was 21. When I was 22 or 23, and my body was beginning to change from just-post-adolescent to a little bit like a woman’s body, I weighed about 125. This is when my husband began to be concerned about my weight, to remark negatively upon it and my appearance. For example: he could no longer see my hipbones protrude through my skin. Did I want to be a fat old woman? He had a very devoted concern for my weight throughout our marriage. This is one (of many) reason(s) he was unable to maintain the position of Mr. Zuska. If your partner behaves in a similar manner I suggest your consider shedding him/her.

For most of the rest of my life until the past year or so I have hated my body. Right now I weigh a good bit more than I did at age 23, but I finally see my body as a woman’s lovely rounded zaftig body. Three cheers to (the new) Mr. Zuska for his part in that! Here’s a book I recommend for any woman still working on learning to love her body.

So…is severely regulating your diet for a month each year, as Muslims do during Ramadan, good for you? I don’t know. Today I visited a temple of food, a veritable Palace of Palatable Pleasures. It was the Grand Opening of the new Warrington Wegman’s. If you have never been to a Wegman’s…I’m so sorry. Food heaven.

If you are a woman, and you are able to afford good food to eat, and you have friends to get together with and share that food, then do it. If you are eating it after sundown during Ramadan, I don’t care. Just promise me you’ll keep it down in your belly and not force yourself to barf it up, or take laxatives to force it out of your bowels. Promise me you will eat and enjoy the pleasures of food and sharing food with friends. Promise me you will love that lovely, rounded, curvaceous, zaftig, womanly vessel your spirit inhabits, and let it take up all the room it needs and wants in this world. Now go buy yourself some flowers, and live large.

Updated to add link for NEDA statistics web page.

  1. October 16, 2006 at 7:08 am

    The first Mr. Zuska complained about your weighing 125 at 5’4″? Sheesh. Has he gone on to a second life as a fashion-industry diet terrorist, or maybe a girls’ gymnastics coach?
    Anyway, congrats on your new Wegmans! I live at the Wegmans epicenter (Rochester, NY), and love the place too. I actually credit Wegmans with my minor weight loss; since I started shopping there, I cook at home more frequently, and eat more healthy food and less junk.

  2. Absinthe
    October 16, 2006 at 9:12 am

    “Zaftig”…I love that word. It conjures up the image of a juicily plump, vivacious and curvaceous woman.
    Thanks to a couple months of illness and meds that make me sick, I am a lot less zaftig than I used to be. Still got lots of me left to love though.
    On the subject of eating disorders; our 9 year old daughter is worrying us lately by bringing home her lunch uneaten day after day. She is the *only* child in her school who never eats the cafeteria lunches and we explained to her when she first started at the school that the cafeteria food was terribly unhealthy, and we sat together and discussed the various items on the menu (almost exclusively fried food, and almost completely devoid of any green or orange vegetable matter) and I explained why each item alone might be part of a healthy diet, but taken as a whole, day after day, such a diet would make people unhealthy and possibly fat (I could rant more about school cafeteria food, and about how it isn’t doing our nation’s children any favors, but save that for later…)
    Anyway, our daughter has lost weight over the past year, such that she has actually gone down in pant size instead of up, despite the fact she has grown almost three inches in the past year (she is a very, very tall girl, and now is also very, very slim (dare I say skinny?)). We don’t know if her refusal to eat her lunch and the subsequent weight loss is the onset of a possible eating disorder, or if she feels self concious being one of the few kids eating a sack lunch each day (some other kids occassionally bring sack lunches, but not many). In any case, this month we are taking her into a pediatrician for a complete physical, and we will explain to the doctor our concerns.
    I worry that putting too much emphasis on the problem will just make it worse though. This is the hell of being a parent in this day and age where a woman (or girl) has it drummed into her that food is an enemy, and even healthy food must only be taken in extremely small quantities, lest one be labelled “fat”. Society tells us that all woman must feel guilty about eating.
    This pervading societal pressure on women to believe that enjoying food is bad is why I hate weight watchers…I went once to a meeting with a friend some years back, and the subject of the meeting was everyone bitching and moaning about how “bad” they were sure they were going to be during the Easter weekend (which was upcoming). The group leader told them the solution was to “save points” (ie; starve themselves during the week) so that they could have a big Easter dinner. Fuck that…one of the greatest joys in life is sitting down to a dinner with a large group of friends and/or family on special occassions, and there should never, *ever* be a guilt trip that is shoved down our throats about doing that. Eat, Drink, Love, Be Happy.
    The language the people were using in the group describing their eating was really disturbing too…I was so “bad” this week…I was really “naughty”… and the group leader reinforced the use of that language.
    It was the first and last weight watchers meeting I ever went to. My advice to the overweight is to run, not walk, away from your nearest WW group. Except of course unless you thrive on guilt trips.

  3. October 17, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    I *love* Wegman’s! Love love love.

  4. Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 19, 2006 at 3:16 pm


    Clone threat to women’
    Matthew Franklin
    October 20, 2006
    WOMEN’S groups and federal MPs have warned that legalising therapeutic cloning will endanger women’s lives and create pressure for them to become “egg factories” to supply the dreams of scientists.

    They make it sound like egg donation would be mandatory.

  5. October 19, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    I don’t think egg donation would have to be mandatory for there to be significant pressure brought to bear upon women – or at least some groups of women – to donate their eggs. For example: large sums of money could be offered for egg donation. (This, I think, is already beginning.) Poor women would have a larger incentive to donate their eggs than women who are rich or reasonably well-off. The economic pressure might drive some women to donate eggs when otherwise they would not. Let’s say you can feed your kids for a year by being a stripper or by donating your eggs. Is it better to accept the risks that come with the stripping life, or those that come with allowing massive doses of hormones to be injected into your body to force ovulation, and then undergoing the egg harvesting procedure? Do you want to let your body become an egg farm? Are you ethically okay with that? But the kids are hungry. You don’t have a lot of other viable alternatives because you are poor and unskilled. Let’s not get into why you are poor and unskilled. I’m just describing a possible scenario. Who do you think usually gets exploited anyway, when the exploiting is done? It’s the poor and the unskilled.
    Or say, in your country (whatever country), a propaganda campaign is undertaken that promotes egg donation as a woman’s patriotic duty. It could happen. So: not mandatory, legally, but mandatory for patriots. And who doesn’t want to be a patriot?
    There are many, many ways of pressuring women to behave in ways that are convenient for the powers-that-be. Just go ask the Taliban. Or the U.S. Christian fundamentalists.
    Say, what does all this have to do with Women, Ramadan, and Food?????

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