Starting in early May, millions of Muslims around the world will observe the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a time for self-reflection, religious observance and for communities and families to come together. For a full month, many Muslims will dedicate themselves to fasting from sunrise to sunset, during which they refrain from having any food or drink.
Fasting symbolizes cleansing of the soul, inspires self-discipline and empathy for those in need. Not to mention, this sacred time encourages Muslims to carry out acts of generosity.
I’d like to think, that Ramadan is also a time to honour our bodies and our health. This year, Ramadan falls in the spring, and with longer days, the fast in Canada can last for up to 16 hours. For the most part, Muslims will continue with their routine; go to work, attend school and show up for their responsibilities – despite not being able to eat or drink. Understandably, this can trigger fatigue, may affect physical performance, and impact mood. So that mean, following a healthy and balanced eating pattern during Ramadan is key; to help keep you nourished and energized throughout the month.
We’ll explore some of the common questions about healthy eating during Ramadan, and share delicious and healthy Ramadan recipes to give you the sustenance you need, to observe Ramadan and engage in spiritual exploration.
How Does Fasting Affect My Body?
Whether you fast or not, your body typically uses glucose for energy (fuel). Glucose comes from foods containing carbohydrates (grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy and sweets), and it is our main source of energy. It fuels our brain, muscles and tissues, and any extra glucose, that’s not used by the body, is stored in the liver and muscles, or converted to fat – until the body needs it.
During fasting hours, because you don’t have carbohydrates coming in from food – to provide fuel, you body starts to “use up” stored glucose. And as time passes, your body begins to create its own glucose using your fat stores. Eventually, your body’s stores are exhausted – resulting in starvation mode. This is when your metabolic rate begins to slow down, and your body leans on muscle tissue for fuel (muscle breakdown). When this happens varies; from several consecutive days – to weeks.
It becomes critical then, to choose suitable foods – during non-fasting hours, to help replenish your body’s energy stores – to prevent hunger and fatigue.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Fasting?
People have become increasingly interested in the potential health benefits of both religious and non-religious fasting. The assumption is, that fasting can promote weight loss and can offer other metabolic benefits including improvements in blood sugar control and cholesterol levels. Some studies show that fasting during Ramadan can lead to weight loss (relatively small) and others show a reduction in fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. However, these effects appear to be temporary, and people tend to return their pre-Ramadan levels shortly after the month is over.
Indeed, for some, Ramadan may provide an opportunity to lose a few pounds, but I’d argue, consistent and sustainable lifestyle modification is vital for lasting health and quality of life. Ramadan is an excellent starting point to reflect on our choices and to start working on small but sustainable changes – that can last for the long haul.
If you’re keen on learning more about the science around intermittent fasting, it’s benefits and purported claims, you can access my free guide.
Can Fasting Cause Dehydration?
Our bodies need water to regulate our temperature, and maintain bodily functions. Water is lost through the breath, digestion, urine and sweat. Unlike nutrients, we’re actually unable to store much water. To compensate for this, while we fast, our kidneys hold on to water, and produce less urine. However, we cannot do much to control the amount of water lost through the skin or breath.
Because of this, many people who fast for long hours, might experience signs of dehydration: headaches, dizziness, sleepiness and fatigue. Having plenty of water and fluid- rich foods, during non-fasting hours can help rehydrate you, and minimize the effects of dehydration during fasting hours.
Pack in the fluids by including a range of beverages and food rich in fluids during non-fasting hours. Some examples include:
- Tea or coffee
- Milk or milk alternatives like soy or almond milk
- Fruits and vegetables like cucumber slices, tomatoes and melons
What Food Is Eaten During Ramadan?
There are countless Muslim communities around the world, all with their own traditional healthy Ramadan recipes. The two main meals during Ramadan, are Suhoor at sunrise, and Iftar at sunset. You will find a variety of savoury and sweet dishes at the table at meal times.
In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ramadan recipes may include scrumptious and crispy samosas. In Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern homes, families relish in beautifully crafted stuffed vine leaves. A popular North African dish is the flavourful tomato based egg dish, Shakshuka, eaten with a side of bread. Haleem, a hearty wheat or barley based stew, is popular in many Middle Eastern countries. Many Iranians will no doubt have a bowl of fereni, a rosewater infused rice pudding, at their iftar table. These are just a few examples of the many delicious Ramadan recipes from around the world.
What can I eat during Ramadan to stay full?
What should I eat for breakfast?
There are three key nutrients in food to help keep you full for longer: protein, fibre and healthy fats. Enjoying Ramadan recipes, that offer a combination of these nutrients can help to keep you nourished and fuelled for longer. Enjoying a variety of plant foods, as part of your meals, can maximize your intake of key nutrients.
Some foods; including oats, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas), okra and eggplant contain soluble fibre. When this fibre dissolves in water, it forms a gel. This causes food to leave your stomach at a slower rate (remember feeling full for longer?!). I would recommend including foods rich in soluble fibre at every meal, especially at Suhoor.
And lets not forget about hydration either. You want to include plenty of fluids at Suhoor, to help you cope with the fast.
To get the most benefit from your Suhoor meal, include foods rich in complex carbohydrates. Aside from being an excellent source of fibre; they help to support stable blood sugar levels, prevent excessive hunger and preoccupation with food early in the day.
Complex carbohydrates can be found in plant based foods like:
- Whole grains: brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, quinoa, barley, whole grain oats, sweet potatoes
- Whole fruits and vegetables
- Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas
Including foods rich in protein not only keep you full for longer, but also prevent muscle loss. Examples of plant and animal sources of protein include:
- Lean meat
- Legumes like chickpeas, lentils, beans and split peas
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy protein such as edamame, tofu and tempeh
- Nuts and seeds
Including some healthy fats as part of your meals can help to absorb certain key nutrients and keep you feeling satisfied. The healthiest fats come from plant sources. Some healthy sources of fat include:
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds, including unprocessed nut and seed butters
What Should I Eat For Iftar?
Iftar is the first meal that’s eaten after many hours of fasting. The mind and body is challenged to go without food and drink for an extended period of time. Chances are, you will be feeling ravenous, and craving a heavy meal – full of foods heavy in fat and sugar. But it is important to remain mindful of how you eat and what you eat. Taking your time to start and finish your meal, can help you to avoid overeating and overwhelming your digestive system.
Traditionally, Muslims break their fast, by having a few dates and a cup of tea before moving on to the main meal. There is a lot of merit to this age-old tradition that has been passed down by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Dates are rich in vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, which help prepare your body for the meal that you are about to receive. The carbohydrates in the dates can stabilize blood sugars and help manage your appetite; so you don’t feel the urge overeat. A cup of tea, milk or water can help you to rehydrate.
At Iftar, the goal is to replenish the nutrients you have used up during the day and start to rehydrate your body. Make sure to have plenty of water and other fluids from Iftar to Suhoor to keep you well hydrated. Soups and stews are a great addition to any meal in Ramadan as they provide both nourishment and hydration.
Just like with Suhoor, you want to aim for meals that are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats.
What Should I Avoid Or Minimize?
Try to minimize foods that are deep fried or high in sugar. While these may give you instant satisfaction, they do little to provide you with the nutrition you need. Not to mention, they’re harder to digest. Of course, that’s not to say that we can’t include these delicious foods in moderation. The idea is to be mindful and to have foods that offer more nutritional value more often, so you can feel your best and focus on your spiritual health.
Is It Possible To Stay Healthy During Ramadan?
It is absolutely possible to stay healthy during Ramadan. While meal timing may be a little different than usual, the same principles of healthy eating apply. Aim for a healthy, balanced and varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and proteins.
Some people wonder if it is safe to exercise during Ramadan. In fact, staying active can help you stay healthy. However, it is recommended that you avoid gruelling exercising routines (extensive cardio)during the hours you are fasting. This will only exacerbate fatigue and cause dehydration. Instead, try to exercise an hour before you break your fast. That way, you can replenish your body soon after.
Fasting in Ramadan is not intended to cause any harm. If you are living with any health conditions, are pregnant or taking medications, make sure to consult your healthcare team to make sure that fasting is safe for you.
Is Fasting In Ramadan Safe For People Living With Diabetes?
If you are living with diabetes, make sure to consult with your healthcare team before making the decision to fast during Ramadan. Remember, certain medications can increase your risk of getting low blood sugars. Your healthcare team will advise you and help create a plan to minimize your risk.
The key to remaining healthy in Ramadan is to have well timed, balanced meals and make sure to have plenty of fluids from Iftar to Suhoor. Our collection of healthy Ramadan recipes can be source of inspiration and a good starting point for you to begin planning healthy meals for the month!