At 7.7% of the population of the GTA , the highest concentration of muslims in any North American city, chances are you work with or know someone who’s fasting. For those that don’t know, Ramadan fasting entails abstaining from consumption of any food or drink (“even water?!” yup), amongst other things (sex), from sunrise to sunset. Of note is that the muslim calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar in that it follows the moon instead of the sun, so the month of Ramadan does in fact vary in length (either 29 or 30 days) and the season it falls in based on lunar phases. For the person fasting this means the length of the fasts will vary from year to year. This year muslims are fasting for around 17 hours out of the 24 hours in the day in the GTA based on the ridiculous amount of sun we’re getting this summer. In the fitness community they would call this a 17/7 fast, where the first number refers to the length of the fast and the second number refers to the length of the eating window to give us a combined 24 hours.
One of the most comprehensive ebooks available on the net about intermittent fasting (IF) is available for free from Dr. John Berardi. In the ebook he self-experiments with several different ways and lengths of fast in order to determine which was best for dropping weight while keeping muscle. He documents everything from blood work to his moods throughout the day.
Ultimately he found a way to reduce bodyweight and reduced his body fat percentage through fasting.
Everybody wants more muscle and less fat, whether they know it or not. The unschooled may say “I want toned abs” or “a flat stomach” or that they want to lose fat in a particular place like their arms, but the fitness people in their lives will just translate those complaints to “I want less fat and more muscle."
Aside from aesthetics, there are numerous other benefits of fasting. A select few of these include reduced blood lipids, increased cell turnover, improved blood sugar control and neural plasticity . Yes it even affects your brain! According to work from the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the U.S. :
"If you don't eat for 10–16 hours, your body will go to its fat stores for energy, and fatty acids called ketones will be released into the bloodstream. This has been shown to protect memory and learning functionality, ... as well as slow disease processes in the brain."
For the dudes who are looking to pack on a few pounds of solid weight, I may still not have you convinced. Though Dr. Berardi actually found an increase in lean body mass while fasting with one protocol, I’d say its pretty tough to gain weight while fasting, but at the very least, you can enjoy these health benefits while maintaining your muscle mass. Now I should mention that even though it seems that IF is a perfect solution to your health and body image goals, it is not for the faint of heart and still requires clean eating and exercise.
Berardi isn't the only guy out there who’s looked into IF. In fact Martin Berkhan of lean gains fame and books like Eat Stop Eat and the Warrior Diet came before his free ebook (these are just a few of the more popular references) and offer views that will turn your current paradigm about eating upside down.
Finally, one thing that sometimes goes unmentioned in the fitness community is the ability of IF to help you empathize with those that don't have food and to appreciate the true worth of food. This is afterall so contradictory to the notions of grazing that have become so popular these days. When your stomach is growling and you feel utterly out of energy you experience what those without anything go through daily, possibly without the endorphin rush and release that comes with breaking the fast.
For those I have convinced, I encourage you to try a simple 16/8 fast (e.g. stop eating at 9 pm at night and start again at 1pm). And if this is too easy try a 24 hour fast (e.g. stop eating at 9 pm and start eating again at 9 pm the next day). This second version is what Berardi recommends for beginners, but allows for water consumption (along with other small tweaks), as is the case with all the fasting protocols he experimented with.
There are actually studies available on Muslim athletes that show you can in fact stay fit during Ramadhan [4-6] despite its departure from fasting for the sake of fitness alone. Unlike Berardi’s and Berkhan’s protocols for fasting, Muslims cannot drink water or take health supplements during the fast. Most of the population, will actually pack on some fat during the month because of the modern North American culture surrounding Ramadan. What would you do after dark if you couldn't eat or drink until the sun goes down?
This is in part due to our food choices during this month, which go to crap because Muslims figure if they’ve been fasting all day they can indulge freely when the sun goes down. Studies have shown it’s not when you eat, but what you eat in the 24 hours of the day that will actually effect your body composition. And secondly, many stop exercising altogether. The combination of the worst foods possible (read: delicious) being served daily with little to no exercise reeks havoc on the body. If done correctly though, you can reap the amazing benefits I spoke of earlier through fasting.
Now most are not professional athletes and further cannot operate nocturnally given their life responsibilities. What this means is that for those looking to improve performance or increase lean bodyweight to satisfy their Adonis complex, its near impossible. But, for those looking to shed a few pounds of fat, this can serve as the perfect time. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’ll summarize the advice of a few resources available on the net [7-9] that I agree with and add a few pointers. Further I will generalize the advice to both men and women.
The first thing to say is that your top priority between when the sun goes down/when you can eat again/Maghrib and when the sun comes back up/it’s time to fast/Fajr, should be taking in as much water as possible. For those reading our chart above and don't know, Suhoor is the meal before sunrise and Iftaar is the meal after sunset. High-level athletes get in as much as 2 gallons a day (32 cups) but for most folk who are active I would say aim for at least 16 cups during your eating periods. Dehydration is a huge performance killer and is arguably the hardest part of fasting. Secondly, because you are eating so infrequently you must eat even cleaner than usual. That doesn’t mean you have to say no to baklava and samosas all together but it does mean you have to settle with more modest portions. Thirdly, workout! The combination of a lower caloric intake and exercise can work wonders on reducing your body fat (did you see Berardi up there?). Timing is key however because of the structure of your days and working out either right before you can’t eat when the sun is rising or after you’ve eaten are your best bets to prevent extended bouts of exhaustion. Although I don’t cover any workouts here,  and  should give you solid options. Finally, because eating before sunrise will mean waking up from sleep, you may have to recover that lost sleep even if this means adding a nap to your day. Sleep is super important to replenish and rejuvenate the bodies of active individuals.
For those who are interested in fasting, try it out and tell us how you did in the comments. Remember, the best way to lose weight is to eat less and despite what all the food lobbyists say you won’t die if you go more than 3 hours without eating. I’m still alive.
 Mattson, M. P., W. Z. Duan, et al. (2003). "Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms." Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3): 417-431.
 Collier, R. (2013). "Intermittent fasting: the science of going without." Canadian Medical Association Journal 185(9): E363-E364.
 Chaouachi, A., J. B. Leiper, et al. (2012). "The effects of Ramadan intermittent fasting on athletic performance: Recommendations for the maintenance of physical fitness." Journal of Sports Sciences 30: S53-S73.
 Maughan, R. J., Y. Zerguini, et al. (2012). "Achieving optimum sports performance during Ramadan: Some practical recommendations." Journal of Sports Sciences 30: S109-S117.
 Shephard, R. J. (2012). "Physical performance and training response during Ramadan observance, with particular reference to protein metabolism." British Journal of Sports Medicine 46(7): 477-484.