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Eating healthily during the month of Ramadan
Rashida J. Jinnah MS RD LD
31 July 2011
  • Fasting is among the special observances that Muslims undertake during the holy month of Ramadan. Fasting radically alters the diet, slowing the body’s metabolism and sometimes causing discomfort. However, good health can be maintained by consuming adequate nutrients during meals.

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    Eating dried dates are a good way to get your blood sugar up quickly after a fast. Photo: Nazma Lakhani
    Eating dried dates are a good way to get your blood sugar up quickly after a fast. Nazma Lakhani

    Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and in Muslim tradition is a time of heightened commitment to piety and purification. Fasting is among the special observances that Muslims undertake, in which they refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk.

    Fasting radically alters the diet. Meals are limited to the morning and evening, causing the body's metabolism to slow. Some may experience discomfort during the day. However, good health can be maintained by consuming adequate nutrients during meals. Below are some tips for observing a healthy and safe fast during Ramadan.

    Consider the following:

    • Divide your food into three meals. Saher is the morning meal when the fast starts, iftar is the evening snack when the fast is broken and then dinner.
    • Include complex carbohydrate foods rich in fibre, such as those found in grains and seeds. For example, whole wheat roti, brown rice, daal, beans, bajara, bran, fruits and vegetables should be eaten, particularly during saher. Fibre-rich foods help increase the feeling of fullness, promote good blood glucose levels and help with regularity. Fasting during the day can also increase stomach acid content and cause feelings of pain or discomfort. High-fibre foods during dinner can help neutralise this acid and alleviate pain. (Remember to increase fluids with fibre intake to prevent excessive gas).
    • During iftar, dates and juice are traditionally consumed. Include three dates and 4 oz (120 mL) of juice to help normalise possible low sugar (hypoglycemia) and provide the much needed “instant” energy along with hydration. If you have diabetes, please consult with your healthcare provider for medication or diet adjustments and learn more about Fasting and Diabetes.
    • Bake or grill foods instead of frying them, and if frying, decrease the amount of oil used. Try and measure the oil in spoonfuls instead of just pouring it from the bottle.
    • Choose lower fat and lean cuts of meat. Skin chicken and remove any visible fat before cooking.
    • Eat slowly and chew food well. Because you have not eaten all day, there will be a tendency to want to eat a large quantity of food quickly. Remember that it takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full – put small portions on your plate first.
    • Walking in the evening for at least 30 minutes is an ideal routine activity. Walking will not only help your metabolism, but also help your mind stay clear. However, if you've eaten a big meal, blood needs to move to your digestive system rather than to your muscles, so a brisk walk straight after a heavy meal is not a good idea. Wait 1-2 hours after your meal before engaging in any strenuous activity. Best to keep your meals light.
    • Drink as much fluid (preferably water) as possible. It is advisable to consume at least 8-12 cups between iftar and bedtime so that your body may adjust fluid levels in time for the next day.

    Avoid:

    • Fried and fatty foods such as french fries, sweets, fried samosa, pakoras, parathas, greasy curries and biriyani. High-fat foods are high in calories and are nutrient deficient which will lead to an imbalanced diet, thereby increasing sluggishness and fatigue during Ramadan.
    • Salt and salted food, such as achars pickles, papadums, sauces, nuts, chips and olives. Dehydration is a risk due to limited fluid intake during the day, and high salt foods can further increase this risk by drawing fluids out of your body.
    • Foods containing too much sugar such as sweet glucose energy drinks and mithai. These are sources of empty calories with very little nutritional value. While they may provide you with instant energy, they will not sustain you through the day and night.
    • Overeating especially at saher can cause further metabolic imbalance, like highs and lows in your blood sugar and dehydration.
    • Too much tea or caffeine at saher. Both of these are diuretics when consumed in large quantities and the body can lose valuable minerals, salts and fluids that you need during the day.
    • Sleeping immediately after iftar and saher meals, since your body will require time to digest the food. Wait for 2–3 hrs before sleeping.
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    Grill lean meats and serve with salad and unbuttered naan. Photo: Nazma Lakhani
    Grill lean meats and serve with salad and unbuttered naan. Nazma Lakhani

    During the month of Ramadan, you might experience some minor discomforts. The following measures can help prevent these common conditions:

    Constipation – Constipation can cause discomfort and indigestion, making you feel bloated. This can be caused by eating too much refined food, drinking too little water and / or not eating enough fibre. To avoid constipation, avoid refined foods by eating foods rich in fibre like whole grain cereals and bread. Increase your intake of high fibre carbohydrates such as daals, dried beans like tabuli, chana, fruits and vegetables. Drink lots of water.

    Indigestion – Indigestion can be caused by over-eating or eating too many fried, fatty and spicy foods, or foods that produce gas. Fasting can also cause increased acidity, leading to the feeling of indigestion. To avoid indigestion, try not to overeat. Be sure to drink plenty of water and include foods rich in fibre to neutralise acidity and promote a feeling of fullness without overeating.

    Headaches – Headaches while fasting can be caused by caffeine and tobacco-withdrawal, doing too much in one day, lack of sleep, dehydration and hunger. Headaches can occur as the day passes and can worsen by the end of the day. To avoid headaches, prepare for Ramadan by decreasing caffeine and tobacco consumption slowly, starting a week or two before Ramadan. Start drinking caffeine-free teas, coffee, unsweetened juices and water. Also, don't forget about sleep. Prepare for Ramadan by reorganising your daily schedule to ensure a good night's rest.

    Low blood sugar – Low blood sugar can occur because of the length of time between meals. and Symptoms of low blood sugar need to be watched for carefully. These can include weakness, dizziness, tiredness, poor concentration, perspiration, feeling shaky, an inability to perform physical activities, headaches and palpitations.

    Among non-diabetics, having too many refined carbohydrates like sugary foods, sugar-rich beverages like cola and sherbet – especially at saher – can cause low blood sugar during the fast. Low blood sugar can also be caused by not eating at saher. To avoid significant low blood sugar levels, be sure to eat at saher and limit intake of sugary foods and drinks. Make sure to eat nutrient dense foods including proteins, such as chicken, grilled lean meat, and eggs; fibre-rich carbohydrates, like whole wheat roti, and fruits; and a large glass of water.

    Remember a meal should be a meal and not a feast. Please always remember to consult your doctor in advance if you have any of these conditions already, so that you can experience a rewarding and healthy Ramadan.

    Further information