The month of Ramadan is something like a spiritual Olympics in the Islamic calendar. Through the physical demands of fasting and a plethora of opportunities for supererogatory devotional practices, namely the nightly tarawih congregational prayer, Ramadan naturally regiments the believer in the direction of spiritual excellence (Ihsan). Come the end of the month, wayfarers on the path to Allah feel at their strongest spiritually, and many lament the month’s passing.
But how the month plays itself out in material terms is, regrettably, less edifying. In the West and Muslim-majority societies, spiritual excellence is often pursued to the implicit — or even overt — detriment of physical wellness. My time in Muslim lands over the past several years has made it clear to me that Ramadan is sadly a time in which physical well being is increasingly compromised, with an exacerbation in the rates of diabetes, obesity, hospitalizations and use of medications.
This strikes me as a breathtaking contradiction. If we seek spiritual elevation, it necessarily follows that we honor the rights our bodies have over us at the same time. Without our health, we would become incapable of performing basic ‘ibadah (religious devotional practice).
At face value, moreover, this contradiction is due to excessive and overindulgent dietary practices during Ramadan — a kind of gluttony against which we’ve been explicitly cautioned. The Prophetic invocation of filling one’s stomach one-third with food, one-third with water and one-third with air is a prescriptive measure against eating and drinking to excess. The esteemed theologian and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) explicated on the matter further, dedicating an entire book of his magisterial Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences) to the Manners Relating to Eating. He cautions against seeking excessive indulgence in food, and instead emphasizes contentment with simplicity and making an intention of eating as a means of strengthening oneself in obedience to Allah. The Quran is quite explicit on the matter of food as a source of wholesome sustenance: “Partake of the good things which We have provided for you as sustenance, but do not transgress therein the bounds of equity lest My condemnation fall upon you.” (20: 81)
The abdication of wholesome and moderate eating is central to our Ramadan excesses. But there is something even deeper at stake here: Our religious community has fundamentally lost sight of the connection between spiritual health and wellness more broadly — despite that connection being firmly enshrined in Islamic discursive tradition. Andalusian legist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 1388) — pioneer of the study of Maqasid al-Shari’ah, or the “Higher Objectives of Islamic Law” as the basis for Islamic legal theory — presented the preservation of life as one of the five central higher objectives the shariah was designed to uphold. The Prophet Muhammad is the key exemplar of the intricate connection between spiritual and physical health, first in his reminder that the body has a right (haqq) over us, and secondly, in his exhortation that “a strong believer is better and more lovable to Allah than a weak believer.”
Herein, I submit, lies the missing link that far too many in our ummah fail to address during Ramadan. Accordingly, in the previous Ramadan, I charted a path that establishes best practices for maintaining health and physical wellness during the holy month and broadcast my experiments in real-time. This began as a personal journey, but as I proceeded, thousands of people around the world began to follow my work, and I counseled hundreds through the same process. The results suggest that it remains possible to hack Ramadan using nutrition, to the extent that fasting grants us energy and vitality rather than deprive us of it – which can then be redirected to the spiritual purification at the heart of the holy month’s mandate.
A burning need for change
The timing couldn’t have been better. Ramadan in 2018 coincided with the near two-year anniversary of my having seriously taken up nutrition and fitness as an integral part of my lifestyle. This was quite a shifting of gears: I have no prior athletic background, save meager and half-hearted childhood and adolescent attempts to participate in group sports, which had little or no staying power. Occasional attempts to get fit or lose weight while in college — briefly inspired by the shredded physiques of my gym-rat buddies — would invariably end in a matter of weeks after I discovered how difficult and taxing exercise was. By the summer of 2016, I didn’t so much as know what a dumb bell meant.
But upon completing the manuscript of my last book that summer, I realized that my successes as a writer were coming at the expense of my physical and psychological well being. While juggling a full-time doctoral study alongside preparing a book for publication, I had spent that arduous two year period sleeping poorly, getting nominal movement, and eating out of convenience rather than nourishment. This, as a scholar whose primary stock and trade is the politics of Islamic spirituality, became unacceptable.
And as it just so happened, I began my reflections on the need to reintroduce wellness into my life precisely as I was wrapping up a summer research stint abroad. When I returned home, which was in North Carolina at the time, those reflections came full circle on my flight back, where I fortuitously and unexpectedly bumped into an old friend, Coach Be Moore, an accomplished nutrition coach and personal trainer whose brand “Eating for Abs” I had been following for some years on social media. Recently he had moved his family out to North Carolina, but was too tied up since his move getting his children situated in new schools to free up for a meeting. But that serendipitous airplane rendezvous was enough for us to finally slate a face-to-face meeting on our calendars. We later sat down for lunch at a lovely Turkish restaurant, sharing kebabs and life stories. He regaled me with tales of clients he’s helped around the world, and how his being location independent prompted him and his wife to resettle in North Carolina to take advantage of the low cost of living. I told him about the directions my life had taken in the past few years — career successes, new relationships and friendships, the deep growth of my prolonged stints abroad and my return to the US to commence doctoral study. I confessed how a lot of that growth — intellectual and spiritual alike — came at the expense of my personal well being, to the point that my spiritual development by definition remained woefully incomplete.
Being an omnipresent servant in the world of wellness, Coach Be offered to take me on as a mentee. In addition to offering me full-time nutrition coaching at a discount, he assiduously guided me through my workouts as a personal trainer five days a week. This journey involved some sacrifices; forgoing the convenience of my free gym at Duke University, I had to schlep to his gym in Cary, which was 30 minutes away. This was the year I was preparing my comprehensive doctoral exams, and those five hours I spent behind the wheel every week were a plain distraction from the hundreds of scholarly books I was obligated to have mastered in a matter of months. Nonetheless, even under such intense pressure from my career obligations, this may have been the best investment of time I’d ever made. Fitness and nutrition have become natural appendages in my life, no less intuitive than getting sufficient sleep.
Interestingly enough, as valuable as it was to have been walked through the mechanics of weight lifting in real time, being handheld through nutritional sciences proved infinitely more valuable. As an amateur chef, being trained in nutrition taught me the power of food as medicine, to the point that I naturally found myself sleeping better, I found my mood had naturally improved, and I found that my energy levels stayed constant throughout the day – afternoon slumps became a thing of the past. Upgrading my nutrition yielded dividends in countless aspects of life – even in my eyesight, as my optometrist for two subsequent years in a row remarked that my prescription had gotten lighter, and that nutrition is the only possible explanation.
After a year under his tutelage and emboldened by all I had learned, I sought to further explore possibilities to maximize my own wellness. It is that journey that led me to the regimen of intermittent fasting, and ultimately to nutritional ketosis.
Stepping into intermittent fasting
I first learned of intermittent fasting as a way of accelerating fat loss — I was curious to see what it could offer in improving muscular definition. What ultimately brought me to investigate the matter further and take up the regimen was a series of claims that the hormonal effects of prolonged fasting vastly enhanced cognitive function – after all, being a writer and scholar by profession, looking sexy comes a distant second to being able to cogently and efficiently put pen to paper. So I began skipping breakfast, replacing it with black coffee and assiduous amounts of water — my goal was to drink three liters during fasting hours — and refrained from solid food until the early afternoon. At first, I aimed for 16 hours of fasting, but upon learning that the hormonal benefits are most enhanced after 18 hours, I duly shifted gears and gave myself six hours per day for solid food.
Temporarily bracketing the effects on fat loss, which were considerable, I was blown away at how much mental clarity this experience offered me; in my writings, I found my ideas flying off the page during fasting hours; coffee blunted my hunger, and something about the process of fasting led to an incredible uptick in my cognitive performance, focus and ability to process and transmit ideas.
As I further explored the science behind intermittent fasting, I learned that the key mechanism that made fasting conducive to improved brain function was that it facilitated a bodily mechanism known as ketosis — a nutritional state whereby the body, which normally runs on sugars (glucose in the liver and in muscle stores) for fuel, shifts gears in the absence of glucose to run on fats as a fuel source. Fasting rapidly depletes the body’s existing glucose reserves, such that an 18-hour fast naturally brought my body to switch to this alternate fuel source (fats). In addition to the aesthetic benefits of burning body fat, this alternate fuel source is much cleaner for the brain, provides marked benefits in cognitive function, mental clarity and overall energy — to the extent that being in nutritional ketosis is both naturally appetite suppressing and muscle sparing.
Suppressed appetite and dramatic increase in energy? What a perfect regimen for Ramadan, I figured!
Accordingly, I became a guinea pig for a self-directed Ramadan experiment. I wanted to find a way to make my own ketogenic fasting experience easily replicable for the fasting Muslim masses. Fasting naturally pushes the body toward ketosis, but to enter deep ketosis requires two additional steps: 1) dramatically limiting carbohydrate intake, and 2) dramatically increasing dietary fat intake. The question then became, how could I structure my Ramadan diet to accommodate these metrics? How could I make abstention from carbohydrates feasible for others? How could I up the ante in intake of dietary fats in a streamlined and replicable manner? More specifically, how do I accomplish these goals in the strict confines of Ramadan proper, where if the pre-dawn meal (suhur) is barred, one would only have one very large meal daily (during the iftar period)?
Thinking through proper protocols for Ramadan led me to return to the impulse that motivated this experiment in the first place — the unfortunate ill effects on health Ramadan tends to exacerbate for people today. Extremely gluttonous iftar feasts are no doubt culpable, but I am not so naïve to think I can expect folks to break with established tradition altogether. After a day of long fasting in the summer months, folks *ought* to be able to enjoy a rich and decadent meal. This led me to instead rethink suhur, which across Muslim cultures is typically an exercise in stuffing oneself with as much food as possible in the span of an hour (or less), hoping it will provide sufficient energy to get through a fasting day. This involves healthy doses of protein — eggs, protein shakes, even heavy meats — and carbs like rice, roti, grains, fruits and even sweets.
Herein lay my key intervention. Eating copious amounts of carbohydrates in the pre-dawn hours would no doubt offer a temporary burst of energy, but it would just as assuredly offer a crash after the spike in blood sugar wears off — which will all but ensure a lethargic fasting day. Moreover, even as protein is central to satiety and muscle building, excessive protein can kick one out of ketosis. My solution was to attempt a modified form of “fat fasting” for suhur, relying exclusively on healthy fats with no protein or carbohydrate content of any kind. After some fine-tuning, my suhur formula became:
- three liters of water (to meet hydration needs for the full day)
- one tablespoon of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil (available here in both liquid and powdered forms) — a highly refined extract of coconut oil that can quickly convert to ketone bodies
- one tablespoon of plain virgin coconut oil (if still hungry)
- one scoop of exogenous ketone supplements mixed in water to further kick-start ketosis
This last step was crucial to overcome symptoms of being in an in-between phase, known as the “keto flu,“ which can be quite uncomfortable. The process of getting into nutritional ketosis normally takes weeks, as the body needs time to become “fat adapted,“ and retrain itself from burning glucose to burning fats as a fuel source. Accordingly, given that Ramadan had nearly arrived by the time I conceived this experiment, I realized I needed to speed up the process if I expected others to embark on this journey alongside me. By taking ketone supplements alongside a fats-only suhur, I figured, one could get into nutritional ketosis in a matter of days rather than weeks, reaping all the accompanying benefits while avoiding the wrath of the keto flu. With my suhur hack alone, fasting Muslims could be quickly shuttled into a deep state of ketosis throughout the fasting day.
Maintaining ketosis, moreover, requires also keeping up best nutritional practices during iftar. This is an uphill battle given how deeply ingrained certain dietary proclivities are across the gamut of Muslim cultures — Moroccans insist on opening their fast with harira, Pakistanis with Rooafzah, etc. But for those willing to think outside the box, I cultivated a simple and deeply satisfying keto-friendly iftar protocol — one that can accommodate most cultural culinary milieus. Here especially, my investments in seeking nutritional counsel with the coach rendered full fruit.
- Open the fast gently. A long day of fasting makes the digestive system quite irritable, so immediately gorging on heavy meats would stand to irritate the gut. After fulfilling the sunnah by opening the fast with a date, have a cup of homemade bone broth mixed with a splash of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of MCT oil, which helps further spike ketones just before eating solid food. Bone broth is extremely gentle on the stomach because of its rich collagen content. Sadly, there are no halal purveyors of bone broth I am aware of, but luckily, bone broth is absurdly easy and inexpensive to make from scratch: I offer my recipe here.
- Have a very generous helping of non-starchy vegetables for vitamin and nutrient content. Preferably eat this before the protein source, as the fiber content aids protein absorption. My goal was to eat as colorfully as possible, taking advantage of different phytonutrients offered from various colors of produce. This often took the form of a large, colorful and delicious salad tossed with olive oil, lemon and apple cider vinegar, and topped with olives and walnuts as additional fat sources. If necessary, I could increase my fat-to-protein ratio by including tahini, grass-fed butter, coconut oil and natural peanut butter in my meal. In fact, decadent treats like homemade chocolate became a staple in my regimen. So, this wasn’t a punishment by any means.
- The meal should be high in healthy fats, moderate in protein and extremely low in carbohydrates. Deliberately select a fatty protein source (chicken thighs, for example, which are much more flavorful) rather than a lean protein (chicken breast) to keep the fat-to-protein ratio high. While in Morocco during Ramadan, nearly every group iftar I attended included a wonderful meal option involving a fatty cut of meat. Fine, I had to avoid the couscous, but I had more than enough djaj mchermel (marinated chicken), kharouf tajine (seasoned lamb), and other keto-friendly mouth-watering delicacies to keep me perfectly satisfied. In other words, this protocol was readily adaptable to accommodate multiple iftar cultural milieus without leaving one feeling deprived.
- After my entire meal, I had a second dose of the exogenous ketone supplement, to further push my body toward a deep state of ketosis while sleeping, which will be further stimulated during the next day’s fasting period. Additionally, I would make it a point to end the evening with key electrolyte supplements – particularly magnesium, calcium, and potassium. As I unpleasantly discovered, ketosis can at first interfere with sleep; I later learned through trial and error that electrolyte loss is a major culprit in sleep issues, and after supplementing my sleep properly returned to normal. Then come suhur time, lather, rinse and repeat.
Initially I attempted to eat the totality of my iftar before tarawih prayers, but realized that it was impossible to do so without feeling bloated and horribly uncomfortable. I modified the regimen to emphasize the vegetable content first, then to eat as much of my protein source as I could handle (without feelings of indigestion) before tarawih. After prayers, I would comfortably enjoy the rest of my meal, and a decadent keto-friendly dessert. My goal was to maximize time available for ibadah; how I timed my meals proved just as imperative to that goal as the content of the menu.
I adjusted the formula as I went along, but luckily had the bone structure prepared before Ramadan had officially commenced. At that point I mentioned my proposed experiment in passing to some friends; many, if not most, thought I was crazy. But a handful were sufficiently emboldened to join me in this experiment, and asked for guidelines. After sending out the same boilerplate email a dozen times, I decided I needed a more robust platform — one that could evolve with the experiment in real-time. Enter Instagram and my new persona as @shaykhketo.
Turning heads online
I distilled the results of my Ramadan ketosis experiment in real time on Instagram through multiple metrics — from nutrition and keto-friendly recipes, to exercise and workout strategies during fasting, to inspirational stories of successes from me and those under my tutelage, to innocuous snapshots of life in Morocco during Ramadan. I even made it a point to distill ”failures“ and slip-ups along the way — like seeking out an absurdly indulgent cheat day, going out of my way to essentially eat my body weight in carb-heavy sweets just to see how long it would take to get back into ketosis (less than 24 hours, because I had become so fat-adapted by then). In the process of making this experiment accessible to a global audience, what started as my guiding a handful of friends metastasized into my personally counseling hundreds of folks and offering content and commentary to thousands more.
At first, I met resistance — up to and including (sarcastic) threats of violence should my counsel give rise to making people fat. But I started to attract followers not with tales of how much weight I shed; in fact, I never once disclosed to my Instagram audience my weight on the scale, in large part because that’s not my key metric of progress in the first place. Rather, this experiment started turning heads as I articulated in vivid detail how I had “hacked” the fasting process to become almost effortless, how I had nearly eliminated hunger while fasting, and above all, how I had acquired almost superhuman energy while fasting.
Perhaps the biggest missing link that led hundreds to take my experiment seriously enough to try for themselves was my bicycle anecdote. In a lesson I learned from the previous Ramadan, I found that my workouts were most efficacious if I timed them to end right around iftar time, so I could quickly refuel and replenish nutrients shortly after weight-lifting sessions. However, taxis are notoriously unavailable in Morocco close to iftar. My workaround was to ride my bicycle to and from the gym — some 3.5 miles each way. Initially I found this tedious, but eventually came to embrace the journey as an opportunity to listen to fulfilling podcasts and forcibly get in some steady-state cardio alongside my high-intensity strength training. I paid closer attention to my body during the process and found that within a week, despite it being ”deep“ into the fasting day, I barely broke a sweat during the 7-mile commute and the intense hour-long weight-lifting session – even without the crutch of pre-workout nutrition like Branch Chain Amino Acids. Truly, I hadn’t had this kind of energy while fasting since I was in my early teens.
At that point the followers naturally presented themselves. And with them came remarkable success stories: losing five pounds in a week, registering in deep ketosis within days of starting this journey, losing nearly 20 pounds by the end of Ramadan.
All this was encouraging, but not nearly as much as stories of improved energy, mental function and additional space for devotion and worship during the holy month. I also found out that, unbeknownst to me, a lot of women in our ummah suffer debilitating migraines while fasting. After following my protocols, several wrote me to reveal that they experienced their first-ever migraine-free Ramadan.
I gotta say, this is truly amazing. For the first time in my entire adult life, I don’t have migraines while fasting for Ramadan. And I usually get *crippling* migraines through the holy month! My energy levels are the highest they’ve ever been, I’ve been rocking it in the gym, and I’ve lost ten pounds! You’ve really changed my life with your counsel. May Allah reward you, Shaykh Keto 🙂
Losing weight is of course nice, but nothing proved more gratifying than realizing that my experiment gave hundreds the space to take more full advantage of the spiritual efficacy of Ramadan.
Those same formulas, moreover, proved equally powerful in the subsequent months. The six sunnah fasts for the month of Shawaal were so transparent that I joked to friends that it was almost unfair. Ditto for the first third of Dhul-Hijjah; with the physical exhaustion characteristic of fasting wholly mitigated, I was able to intensely concentrate on the sanctity of the Hajj period, and immerse myself in supererogatory worship rather than fight off feelings of hanger. Needless to say, this experiment rendered dividends that transcend the Ramadan period.
A lifestyle change
What began as a personal experiment ultimately gave rise to a new paradigm for Ramadan. To be clear, though, this paradigm should not be viewed as a quick fix. Far too many people have written me expecting a ketogenic diet to be essentially a shortcut to getting the body of their dreams with minimal effort. Regrettably, it is hardly that simple. Merely consuming your body weight in fats on a daily basis will not, in itself, lead to systemic lifestyle change or improved health. Frankly, I have cautioned several mentees against pursuing a ketogenic diet in the short term — that is, until they properly solidify the mechanics of proper nutrition (i.e., make a daily habit of eating five full cups of non-starchy vegetables and drinking three liters of water) and establish a solid fitness regimen. Additionally, many of my mentees have given up on keeping a ketogenic diet after Ramadan. This is fine, as ketosis (and by extension intermittent fasting) is hardly the only nutritional protocol at our disposal to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle.
But to take full spiritual advantage of the holy month of Ramadan, my experiment plainly suggests that ketosis may be precisely a missing link. Through strategically leveraging nutritional ketosis, if only during Ramadan, Muslims can acquire the energy reserves necessary to do full spiritual justice to the holy month, and to all the khayr it offers. In so doing, a ketogenic Ramadan can better allow us to fulfill our spiritual responsibilities at preserving and promoting wellness as a community, of body and soul.
Here’s hoping my journey can be helpful in discerning if nutritional ketosis can be a positive addition to your life as well, in Ramadan and beyond. Ameen.
>Feature image courtesy of Aziz Poonawalla/Flickr