Thousands in the Gulf region are hospitalized due to fasting-related illnesses during Ramadan
Dieticians see an increase in diabetes cases and weight-gain
Fatty foods and sugary drinks, have made Ramadan and weight-inducing time.
As Ramadan has drawn to a close – and with it, mandatory daytime fasting – Muslims can breathe a sigh of relief as their diets return to normal. Many, however, will be surprised to find their clothes a little snugger, and their health in a perilous state.
Though the month-long season is associated with deprivation, overeating is common practice once the sun goes down. In many hospitals in the Gulf states of the Middle East, the holiday means a sharp rise in inpatients.
“We see a fair increase in digestive-related complaints,” admits Rabee Harb, a family doctor at Kuwait’s Royale Hayat Hospital, who has noticed an uptick in cases of indigestion, gastroenteritis and peptic ulcer disease.
“It’s a combination of overeating or binge eating, and reduced immunity due to dehydration and bad sleeping habits,” he says.
Harb also points out the range of medical emergencies during the period that are less directly linked to food. Heat stress due to dehydration, particularly among construction workers, is a particular problem. There is also an increase in traffic accidents, which he attributes to fasting-related drowsiness.
“Fasting and poor sleep aid this. They lead to tiredness and a lack of concentration,” he says.
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Fasting-related illnesses have become an increasing problem in Gulf countries. In 2011, the Hamad Medical Corporation in Doha reported 7,700 cases in the first week of Ramadan alone. Dana Al Shakaa, a dietician at American Hospital in Dubai, acknowledges she treats an extra five to six patients a day during the holiday season.
“They don’t always know why they’re suffering,” she says of her patients. “They come in with headaches, dizziness or nausea, and it will be from low blood sugar.” Al Shakaa also notes that many patients are diagnosed with diabetes during this time.
“There’s a surge in uncontrolled diabetes cases during Ramadan,” confirms Harb. Flare-ups are often aggravated by the fact that many with the disease forgo their medication during this time.
“There is significant non-compliance with medications due to disturbed eating and sleeping habits,” he admits.
In recent years, the region has witnessed an increasing struggle with obesity and diabetes. Last month, a United Nations study rated many Gulf Cooperation Council countries as among the world’s fattest.
According to Harb, it is only recently, with the advent of high-sugar, high-fat foods in the region, that the season has been met with health dangers.
“The Gulf’s diet was severely limited in the past. Sweets, sugar and fatty foods were in short supply and low demand,” he says. Nowadays, consumption of sugary drinks, like Vimto, has become a Ramadan tradition.
“A cultural shift to take-away food is easily noticeable in Kuwait,” he says. “It is reflected in the long lines that form outside of restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King, even very late at night.”
Experts agree that fasting itself isn’t the problem, so much as how it’s practiced.
“If you do it right, fasting can be very effective for weight loss,” says Alia Al Moayed, a nutritional therapist and health journalist in Bahrain. “The problem is we do it wrong.”
Al Moayed notes that after Ramadan, her client list also fattens up.
“I’d say my business increases 25%,” she says. “In the West, Christmas is the time of year people gain weight. It’s the same with Ramadan, only it’s a month long.”