I had never given much thought to my stomach’s precise capacity. I suppose I considered it more or less bottomless. I put stuff in whenever I wanted. Every so often, I registered its being full as pain, and then I stopped putting stuff in for a while.
Now with Ramadan, I became extremely mindful of each item that entered and what purpose it served. With food vying for space with water, I learned through trial and error. One night early on I wolfed an enormous bowl of pasta and discovered, while gut-busting, its substance petered out too quickly. I came to see my stomach as valuable real estate; I had to select and pace wisely.
I was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of guidelines nutritional experts cram down our throats. I still daydreamed about downing an entire batch of cookie dough or a huge stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. But when the time came to eat, those options were no longer appealing. Perhaps I would have gone in for a bite or two, but filling up would have been reckless. I couldn’t afford to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies.
I needed a small amount of carbohydrates in conjunction with protein. I found that eggs and high-quality yogurt provided long-lasting hunger suppression. My body craved nutritional powerhouses. Black beans, walnuts, and spinach were good, as was whole grain toast smeared with peanut butter. I read that dates, which are rich source of vitamins and natural sugars, are a popular Ramadan treat. I began to eat them nightly, craving their compact goodness first thing after a long day of fasting.
I became familiar with the nuances of hunger. There’s the superficial discomfort when your belly growls. Most of us in the course of our normal lives will never get far beyond this feeling. But past it, await ever-intensifying shades of hunger. Eventually the burning want dulls and radiates out. Your limbs grow heavy and less adept. Several hours in, it reaches your brain and your thinking slows. In the late afternoon, putting my body in a horizontal position seemed like a good option; in fact, most days, it felt like the only option. I thought how difficult it must be for Muslims who had to work throughout Ramadan, especially those with manual labor jobs. I was fortunate to have the freedom to rest.
Muslims are known to spend extra time reading their Qurans during Ramadan. Religious leaders also emphasize that time spent in reflection and prayer can be particularly fruitful during this time of year. But on practical terms alone, I can see why these particular tasks are favored. There came a time in the late afternoon when reading was about as physically demanding an activity as I felt I could manage. I studied passages from the Quran and made my way through books about Muhammad’s life, the history of Islam, the political narratives of predominantly Muslim countries, and the significance of religious practices such as Ramadan. But eventually even reading felt too challenging. My eyes didn’t have the energy to track the lines; my brain didn’t want to process the words. I would fall asleep or just lay there lethargically, my thoughts meandering.
Ramadan showed me the complexity of hunger. It seems counterintuitive, but the more time that elapsed since the last time I ate, the easier it became to not eat. At some point each day, my belly ceased signaling it even wanted to be fed. It must be some sort of protective mechanism: your stomach stops bothering you. It’s pleasant to be free of the nagging, but this is when the mind/body connection starts playing tricks on you because you don’t realize how in need of nourishment your body is becoming. Of course, when hunger stops hurting the potential for real damage begins.