In case I haven’t mentioned this before, I love ABA. Seriously. I’m not referring to table-top flashcard activities, I’m referring to the analysis of behaviour hence- Applied Behavior Analysis.
As part of behaviour analysis, behaviours are broken down into chains of A,B,C- Antecedent, Behaviour, and Consequence. Basically, the antecedent is what precedes a behaviour, the behaviour is the err… behavior, and the consequence is what follows. What does this have to do with Ramadan? Well, here’s a Ramadan case study for your analysis.
Subject X has been fasting all day. As Maghrib approaches, he/she sits down in front of a heavily laden iftar table with a beautiful, aromatic variety of foods and proceeds to drool at them until the azhan is called. Once the first “Allahu Akbar” wafts melodiously through the window, Subject X proceeds to over-eat. Unsurprisingly, Subject X is you.
The scenario varies from one fast to another, but the outcome remains the same: you reach over-fullness in record time, going from light and spiritually connected to engorged and close to reflux if you go into sajda too fast. The consequences of your behaviour are weight gain, self-loathing, disappointment, and regret.
You’re dismayed about the weight gain, so you google things like “Losing Weight in Ramadan.” You find information about clear soups, fruit smoothies, insulin spikes, and lots of information finding fault with your food. Turn’s out though, it’s not your food’s fault. It’s your behaviour about food’s fault.
Every day you tell yourself that tomorrow will be different, but every tomorrow you make the same mistakes because guess what- you haven’t had a chance to analyse your behaviour and try to figure out how you can make changes to the repeating cycle of behaviour. To the ABA!
First, we’re going to define the behaviour. The behaviour (B) in this scenario is overeating; ie- consuming too many calories- whether through food quantity or caloric density, than your body requires.
Next, we need to identify the antecedent, or even antecedents, plural. A single behaviour can have multiple antecedents. Different things can lead you to the same outcome- in this case, eating too much. There’s more than one antecedent to the behaviour of overeating at Iftar, and sometimes at an Iftar party, a half dozen of them can be applicable at the same time.
- At-Home Buffet: Someone’s been slaving over the pot all day, and the result is sixteen different things to taste, and curiosity dictates that you have some of every single dish.
- You’re a Texan at Heart: Your portion sizes are more suitable for hard-working farmhand than a desk-jockey. And we all know you’re a desk jockey.
- You Go to the Source:You eat directly from the serving dish, ie- pakoras or samosas eaten directly from a tray so there’s no portion awareness, let alone portion control.
- You’ve given yourself Carte Blanche: You figure that since you’re fasting you can eat whatever you want, even if it’s deep fried, chocolate dipped, and encrusted with flaming hot cheetos.
- Instant Gratification: Following how long you’ve been delaying the gratification of food all day, you make up for your good behaviour by making up for lost time and eating iftar plus a full meal once the azhan is called.
Overeating as a behaviour (B) are preceded by an antedent (A), and modifying the antecedent (A) is a good way of preventing the behaviour (B), and therefore avoiding the consequence (C) of bloating and regret.
If you’ve ever heard that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then you understand the strength of antecedent modification when it comes to changing behaviours. How does antecedent modifications differ from behavior modification? Behavior modification relies on simply stopping yourself from committing a behaviour, or having someone else stop you. If you haven’t been able to stop yourself so far, and the people you eat with are just as bad as you are, then good luck relying on that.
So, let’s go back to our listed antecedents and see how we can modify each scenario to reduce the chances of you overeating.
- At-Home Buffet: If you have a tendency to overeat out of curiosity at home due to the buffet effect, then modify your antecedent by reducing the number of foods that you put in front of yourself at Iftar. Have one thing for iftar, and one thing for dinner. If you’re hungry before bed, have fruit.
- Texan: If your eyes are bigger than your stomach and your plate is even bigger than your eyes, then change your plate. Downsize your plate or bowl and allow yourself only one refill. That way your portion is controlled by your plate size even if you’re not able to control it through willpower.
- Eating from the Source: In the same way we can reach the bottom of a bag of chips without knowing how we even got there, it is possible to be eating samosas and suddenly notice there’s nothing left but a greasy paper towel. Serve yourself a respectable amount of food and leave the rest in the kitchen. Better yet, put the food back into the refrigerator once you’ve filled your plate. When your plate is empty go pray. Go directly to pray. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
- Carte Blanche: Correcting a carte blanche mentality is a simple matter of math. A single pound of human fat has 3500 calories in it. A single slice of cheesecake can have around 1,000. Just because you haven’t eaten anything since Fajr doesn’t mean that the calories you eat don’t count after Maghrib. Your body doesn’t care what time it is, food is food and too much makes fat. Modifying the antecedent of a carte blanche mentality means correcting the misinformation that justifies bad eating habits. Learn more about the calories and nutritional content of your food options to help deter you from making the spectacularly bad food choices that one can really only make while fasting.
- Instant Gratification: In our rush to compensate for 15 hours of hunger, we eat way too fast, and unless we’ve served ourselves in the kitchen first- we eat faster than our stomachs can think. It takes around 20 minutes to register that you’ve eaten enough, so slow down and pace yourself. One way to do this is to break your fast with a glass of water and a handful of dates ONLY- and then go pray Maghrib. It may only take you five to seven minutes, but it will be more than enough to tame the wild-eyed beast.
Now, if we were to combine all the antecedent modifications to Iftar, a nearly Fail-Proof Iftar could be constructed as such:
Five minutes before Iftar, you take two noticeably smaller plates and head to your kitchen. On one plate, you put a few dates- maybe a fig and a cracker. On the other plate, you put a regular size serving of dinner. You take the dates to the table and leave the dinner in the microwave.
As you’re waiting for the azhan, you focus on dua (and not the food, since all the food is in another room anyway). Once the azhan is called, you drink a glass of nice cold water, you savour your dates (and fig and cracker) and then you LEAVE THE TABLE.
You do wudu or rinse your mouth. You pray maghrib. You make dua. Then, you come back to the kitchen and microwave your single, normal-sized portion of dinner. You bring it back to the table and eat. Then you leave the table again, ideally taking your dishes with you. The end.
It’s seems almost insultingly simple, but the jist of the matter is that you can’t overeat if you’re not given the opportunity to, and preventing yourself from the opportunity can be the next best thing ig you haven’t been able to overcome the behavior.
Yes, there will be times when you eat out at other peoples’ houses and there will probably be way too much food- but every time you manage to control your stomach at home, you build more control and more discipline. If you reach a point where you become unaccustomed to overeating at home, there’s a good chance it won’t be such an easy backslide when you’re out, InshaAllah.
So that’s it. As long as you stick to the system or portion control, single serving, and healthy choices made AWAY from the serving dish, there’s really no way you can mess up as long as you don’t sneak into the refrigerator later.
May Allah give us all the strength- not to lose weight- but to gain discipline over ourselves in Ramadan that begins with the stomach and continues to the other parts of our bodies that need it too. Ameen.