How I learnt to fast for me and the planet – by Fatma Sabat
Food for the soul stays secret. Body food gets put out in the open like us.
Those who work at a bakery don’t know the taste of bread like the hungry beggars do.
Because the beloved wants to know, unseen things become manifest.
Hiding is the hidden purpose of creation: bury your seed and wait.
We were taught as children that the main reason we fast is to feel the hunger of the poor, and to grow empathy for the world, practice was something else though. Where I come from, fasting in Ramadan is often an excuse to work less, sleep longer during the day, and buy and consume more food in a small window of time which eventually ends up often more eating than any other time of the year. I watched people stockpile months before Ramadan on meat, grains, and exotic Levantine nuts and dried fruits which often made me cringe and wonder; is Ramadan a time for self-discipline or indulgence?!
Although I grew up in Egypt where fasting is a well-lived tradition, I never got my head round fasting and enjoyed it as a practice until early thirties. I had started living in France with a toddler and a baby, learning French, managing a household, and teaching part time in a secondary school, I could say the toughest time of my life to date. A Muslim adult during Ramadan abstains from eating and drinking during the day from dawn to dusk, which was almost 18 hours in France at the time. I thought, no, I am sure Allah will understand and forgive. Until an Algerian friend of mine, who is also a heavy smoker- and you can’t smoke if you’re fasting by the way- told me that fasting 10 hours is not really that much different from fasting 18 hours, and that it’s all in the mind. So I was challenged, and started my first fast in the global north, in the height of the summer, in the middle of a ‘canicule’. I had headaches for the first three days, but after that, my body quickly acclimatised, and for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed fasting. A time when I am able to deeply connect with myself, my body, and the world around me.
Fasting is a grounding force
Ghrelin is the hunger hormone that is often released before regular meal times, an alarm telling you it’s time to eat. So if you’re fasting you might have a hammering visit from uncle ghrelin with his hunger pangs three times during the day, he just doesn’t get it. Uncle Ghrelin seems to specifically like me, and whenever he comes, he lingers, so I’ve learnt to befriend him, and welcome his visits which often leave me more present in my own body, managing hunger almost became a noble form of mindfulness. The headaches to start with are always a pain, but eventually serves as a recall bringing you back to yourself, fasting is a hugely grounding force, where pain is the messenger that educates you about yourself, and helps you put things into perspective. I am also less likely to get stressed when I am fasting, when your body doesn’t have the spare energy for it, it just doesn’t happen.
Fasting sharpens your senses
Because you are in a fasting state, you’ll find that you’re more likely to channel your energy and address tasks one at a time, i.e. focus. Food and drink is no more a distraction, you’d be surprised how much time making a cup of tea/ coffee, or making three meals a day plus the snacks takes. You also start noticing things that would be invisible on a regular day, from bursting dew on grass blades in the early mornings, to your child’s hands as it embraces yours on a school run. You become so present and fine-tuned.
Now, this one is for foodies like me, something extra-ordinary happens when you break your fast, that first glass of water is just so pleasing, the water as it trickles down inside me, hydrating my inner skin, is such a rewarding sensation. Eating that meal at sunset, is a pure joy where I truly taste every bit of the meal, from the subtle bitterness in lettuce, to the satisfying umaminess in the stew, with the sweetness of the leeks, and the tenderness of the cabbage as they all dissolves in my mouth. Breaking your fast is not just about quenching your thirst or being satiated, it’s a celebratory moment of utter gratification and gratitude, this is more than enough to keep you going, as fasting gets easier and that celebratory moment is further intensified.
How can fasting help save the planet?
Our problem with food today is that we’re full almost all the time, breaking this habit of constant grazing can grow an appreciation for food, so when is readily available, we’re less likely to abuse it. When I fast in Ramadan, which is a 21 hour dry fast, I have a short window of time to eat, 6 hours this year, 3 of which are well after my bedtime. This makes it inevitable that I end up consuming far less food and drink. I am also more likely to consume more plant-based sustainable foods when I am fasting, food groups which provide the body with high amounts of fibre and take longer travelling through the digestive track, less room for uncle Ghrelin! Examples of these foods are vegetables, pulses and whole grains. Even when I eat animal protein, such as meat, one of the most expensive foods in environmental terms, it’s very unlikely that I would consume more than one portion in a fasting day.
When I fast, I become a lot more conscious of eating both as an act of consumption but also as nourishment to my body which becomes a sanctuary and a part of a bigger temple called planet Earth. This state of noble mindfulness which I referred to earlier renders the concept of food as a commodity a complete absurdity. Fasting is a humbling practice, it draws the humans’ attention to a wider presence and a consciousness that transcends the self. It can serve as an antidote for our obsession with consumerism and self-centeredness. Today, I am happy to say that what I was taught about the purpose of fasting as a child, I am finally able to slowly put into practice.
How about you? If you’d like to reap some of the benefits of fasting, why don’t you try fasting with me on Earth day, Thursday 22nd April 2021? You could always start with a wet fast, instead of a dry fast, or do shorter hours, anything between 12-16 hours is a win-win.
About the author: Fatma Sabet
Fatma is originally from Cairo, she moved to Exeter from Paris to be nearer to her husband’s family.
One of Exeter’s wonders, she runs the farm school at Shillingford Organics and is passionate about organic farming, living well and sustainably and being healthy.
Fatma is currently undertaking a PhD at Exeter University.