Be Well

Balancing Mental Wellness and Eating Disorders During Ramadan

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims globally observe a period of fasting, prayer and reflection.
Dr Teizeem Dhanji, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, Eating Disorder Specialist, at Sage Clinics

It is a time where people feel most connected with their faith and spiritually uplifted.  Whilst fasting, spiritual connection and self-discipline can bring about positive changes to your mental wellbeing and energy levels, it can also present unique challenges.

L'Officiel Arabia speaks to Dr Teizeem Dhanji, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, Eating Disorder Specialist, at Sage Clinics , to know more about the challenges that are commonly faced.

"As a practising Muslim, and Consultant Psychiatrist it can be difficult to balance aspects of mental wellbeing during this Holy Month, or ‘practice what I preach’ as you may say. Given my passion for working with those with an eating disorder, my specialism in this area of mental health and my interest in how culture and religion can play a part in recovery, I’ve come across many children, adolescents or adults who seek advice on how to navigate the Holy month.", she said.

Those struggling with an eating disorder can be triggered during Ramadan, due to the emphasis on abstaining from food and feelings of hunger, feelings of fullness at Iftar, and social gatherings centred around food. This has the potential to trigger binge eating or purging and so it is important to speak to professionals before making the decision to fast in the Holy Month. On the other hand, not fasting can trigger feelings of guilt or disconnection from faith.

Dr Teizeem shares her expert advice on achieving a balance of the different aspects of mental well-being, during the month of Ramadan and especially if you struggle with an eating disorder:

1. Eating well

If you have been advised it is safe to fast, plan ahead and ensure regular eating.

Ensure you eat small regular meals between Iftar and Suhoor, include slow energy release foods such as oats, yoghurt or dates, and pace your drinking. If you’re leading with the intention of fasting and not starvation, the regular meals and snacks will help to prevent binge eating or purging.

Managing social eating can be difficult due to anxiety of eating in large groups or large varieties of food. Plan ahead and share any concerns you may have with a friend or family member who can support you. It might be helpful to avoid large buffets or Ramadan tents, instead opt for intimate meals with family and friends.

2. Sleeping well

Sleep is often disrupted during Ramadan due to the timings of prayers and suhoor. Try to ensure that you are well rested by having a short nap in the day, perhaps before iftar. This will help you to reserve energy, particularly as focussing can be difficult when fasting in the initial few days of Ramadan.

3. Physical activity

Studies have shown that physical activity can be positive for your mental wellbeing, reducing feelings of stress or anxiety, and increasing happiness. Again, this can be difficult in Ramadan particularly for those with an eating disorder or body image difficulties. You may be used to over-exercising, or experience feelings of guilt if you cannot exercise. Why not try low level activities such as a mindful walk after Iftar. Enjoying the ‘hear and now’, taking in your surroundings and being aware of all your senses can help enhance your connection with yourself and to the moment.

4. Self-compassion

For those with an eating disorder where self-criticism is an all-time high, finding compassion for yourself can be a difficult task. Try mindfulness, meditation, or gratitude journaling to cultivate a more positive sense of self. Acts of self-care such as spa days or reading can help. Religious activities such as prayer or learning about compassion in Islam can help us to be kinder to ourselves.

5. Connections with others and faith

For some this may mean connecting with loved ones that live far or near, connecting with new friends, or connecting spiritually through prayer and worship. Feeling closeness or valued can help uplift our mood, and for those who may be struggling it can help us to feel safe with those we trust.

6. Giving

The act of charity, engaging in good deeds and remembering those less fortunate increases our empathy and compassion towards others and gives us a sense of fulfilment. This ‘spiritual nourishment’ can be helpful if you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing as it gives us an instant ‘feel-good feeling’.

In conclusion, she adds: "It is easy to compare ourselves with what others are eating or how others look. This can be heightened during Ramadan but remember that everyone has different requirements and different challenges. Make a plan based on your needs and hold on to the spirituality of Ramadan. Always discuss your concerns with someone you trust and get support when you need it. Wishing you and your families a Ramadan Kareem".