Day 6

Gaining weight while fasting for Ramadan instead of losing it? Here are some reasons why

You might think that people fasting during Ramadan would lose a lot of weight by the end of the Islamic month. But according to registered dietitian and nutritionist Nazima Qureshi, that's far from the case for many people.

COVID-related lockdowns, spent at home with stockpiled food can be a factor, says Nazima Qureshi

A Yemeni cooks fried sambusa, or samosa, during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in the capital Sanaa on May 25, 2018. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

You might think that observers of Ramadan would lose a lot of weight by the end of the Islamic month. Fasting from food and drinks from dawn to sunset every day, for up to 30 days straight, probably sounds like a recipe for weight loss.

But according to registered dietitian and nutritionist Nazima Qureshi, that's far from the case for many people.

"I find it's more common [to gain weight], regardless of age," she said.

As millions of Muslims worldwide get ready to celebrate Eid al-Fitr this weekend — the holiday marking the end of Ramadan — some fasters will be met with the shocking realization that their weight has gone up, not down.

It's a complaint Qureshi has heard many times before. She deals with a lot of Muslim clients who observe the Ramadan fast, and they often question how they could've gained so much weight when they've been fasting for the large part of the month.

For Qureshi, it usually boils down to one large factor.

"What you're eating in that small, non-fasting window is what is impacting you and is resulting in the weight gain rather than that long, fasting window," she said.

You are what you eat

Qureshi cites traditional foods as being one of the biggest reasons behind Ramadan weight gain. 

"One thing to keep in mind is Ramadan is a very social month," she said. "So, Ramadan fasting does have a social and cultural component when it comes to the food that we eat."

Dietitian and nutritionist Nazima Qureshi says people fasting for Ramadan will often gain weight instead of lose weight. (Submitted by Nazima Qureshi)
A large feast is usually prepared for iftar — the breaking of the fast — every night. These feasts often consist of fried foods like spring rolls and samosas, which is a significant player in unexpected Ramadan weight gain. 

"Regardless of which culture you are there's always some sort of fried item and a lot of heavy carbs," she said. 

The difficulty of calculating the calorie content in a single fried item doesn't help with managing weight.

"Depending on how long you leave it in the oil, it absorbs that amount of oil, so it's hard to actually tell the exact calories," she said. "It can be anywhere from 200 to even 500 calories for one piece."

But the real kicker, according to Qureshi, is the quantity of fried foods a faster might eat in Ramadan.

"It's not that the average faster is even eating just one piece — one springroll or one samosa," she said. "You usually end up eating two to three, if not more.

"And now think about doing that for 30 days straight. If you're eating anywhere from three to four fried items every single day, you're easily eating over 100 fried items in a month."

Israeli defense minister and chief of the Labor party Ehud Barak drinks juice during an elections campaign visit to a pedestrian mall on Feb. 4, 2009 in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

Weight gain isn't only limited to what fasters eat at iftar: sugary drinks like fruit juice or soda can also play a part.

"A lot of times people turn to sugary drinks [to stay hydrated] instead of water," she said. "So that means consuming calories from the sugar rather than just getting hydrated."

Qureshi estimates that a tall glass of the average sugary drink could contain anywhere from four to seven teaspoons of sugar.

How quarantine affects eating habits

According to Qureshi, the pandemic and subsequent quarantine orders might have also played a role in some people's unexpected weight gain.

"Right now, because people aren't going to the mosques in the evening, everyone's home," she said. "So you're looking for something to do, and usually that means you might as well eat. You turn to some sort of dessert later at night and that really adds up as well."

Some people have shifted their schedules or are staying up later than usual because they may be working from home, Quershi added.

"This leads to snacking, and it usually ends up being more mindless snacking; not even because you're hungry, but because the food is there," she said.

A worker arranges cookies on a tray for delivery at a bakery ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr in Srinagar, India on May 18. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)

What's more, people's late-night eating habits might be egged on by the amount of food they've been stockpiling.

"Because people aren't able to go to the grocery store as often… they're really stocking up on those packaged items; chips, cookies, and popcorn." she said. "Usually, they're not very nutrient-dense, but once again, more calories, more sugar, more sodium."

This makes for a bad combination with the habit of late-night snacking.

Looking ahead

Although Qureshi says it's more common for people to gain weight in Ramadan than lose it, she says she's seeing more clients this year not going through that.

"I think this year over the past couple of years is when we started to have people say: 'You know what? I felt really great this Ramadan,'" she said.

Qureshi said her book The Healthy Ramadan Guide has been useful to her clients. The guide includes a full Ramadan meal plan, workout plan and recipes.

With Ramadan coming to a close, Qureshi says it's important to carry any healthy choices fasters made this month into the coming months.

"That is really what's going to set you up over the next couple of months, especially during quarantine," she said. 

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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