Staying healthy during Ramadan
This blog post has been reshared from the Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour news page.
The concept of fasting is not new. It is a well-known practice associated with many religious and spiritual traditions. For example, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus traditionally fast on designated days or periods, whilst Muslims fast every year during the month of Ramadan for 29-30 days. The holy month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and this changes each year because the Islamic calendar is based on the cycles of the moon.
How do Muslims fast?
While the average fast period during Ramadan is 12 hours, the duration of the fasting hours varies (10-22 hours) depending on which part of the world people are located in. As a practice, Muslims who fast have one meal just before dawn and another one after sunset.
In between these periods, they do not eat or drink. Muslims believe fasting allows devotion to their faith, teaches self-discipline and serves as a reminder of the suffering of the poor. While fasting is an obligation for healthy Muslims, children, older adults, pregnant women and people who are ill or travelling are exempted. Healthy adults travelling are expected to make up for the fast later.
How does fasting affect the body?
Fasting is known to have benefits including lowering body mass, insulin insensitivity, blood cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood), however, the evidence regarding the health benefits of fasting during Ramadan is mixed.
Studies have shown increased intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and the tendency to overindulge during the short eating window during Ramadan, to make up for the long period of not eating and drinking, which may lead to weight gain.
Other factors at play include the differences in the duration of fasting and cultural habits. Energy intake during Ramadan has been reported to increase in Saudi Muslims and decrease in Indian Muslims; these differences may be due to the cultural differences in food choices between different populations. The disruption of eating and drinking schedules may affect sleep patterns, as most people delay bedtime and sleep less during Ramadan.
How do you have a healthy Ramadan?
There are two feeding opportunities: suhoor (pre-dawn meal) and iftar (after sunset). Plan healthy meals in advance as this sets the tone for your day. Healthy meals are important to keep you energised. Don’t skip suhoor, choose whole meals to prevent cravings during the day.
Eating high-protein foods (such as eggs, meat, fish, lentils, cheese, yoghurt and peanut butter) and high-fibre foods (including fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and seeds) keep you feeling fuller for longer. Whole grain varieties such as porridge or overnight oats, brown rice, brown pasta and wholegrain bread and chapattis will help prevent constipation. Other starchy carbohydrates for people of African and Caribbean origin such as plantain, cassava or maize staples can also be consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Any wholesome meal cooked in a healthy way works; choose grilling, baking or boiling over deep frying.
Healthy meals will differ depending on culture and preferences, but the key principle is to endeavour to consume foods from all the food groups as stated in the Eatwell guide. Aim to have high-fibre foods at both meal opportunities and healthy proteins each suhoor. This will make the fast easier as fibre and proteins can help prolong satiety because they take longer to digest.
Breaking the fast
Three principles to remember are rehydration, healthy meals, and portion control.
It is important to drink plenty of fluids or eat fluid-rich foods after breaking the fast to help you stay hydrated for the day ahead and help fibre pass through the bowels to prevent constipation.
Some people who fast during Ramadan experience mild dehydration, which may cause headaches, tiredness and difficulty concentrating. Therefore, it is crucial that enough fluids are consumed to replace those lost during the day. Start with some fluids like water, milk, or unsweetened fruit juices. Sugar-sweetened beverages should be avoided as they provide excess sugars and calories.
- Healthy meals
There is the temptation to have a treat after having fasted for several hours, but we need to be conscious of deep-fried, high fat and sugary foods as these can lead to weight gain. It is important to start with something light. Dates are consumed by most Muslims as this is seen as a sunnah (the practice of the prophet Muhammed). These have natural sugars for energy and minerals such as potassium and manganese. Dried fruits, frozen and fresh fruits, healthy soups, and salads are recommended, as these are all food sources of fibre, minerals, and vitamins.
- Portion control
To help with portion control, always remember to add in your vegetables. Apart from the important nutrients they provide, they add bulk to your meal and help prevent overeating.
Ramadan can be a good time to make healthy lifestyle modifications that can be sustained in the longer term. Don’t forget to do some light physical activity such as going for a walk. You might also want to get your family and friends involved and get active together.
Ramadan Mubarak to all Muslims around the world!
Dr Hibbah Osei-Kwasi
Lecturer in Nutrition for the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences
1. Trepanowski, J.F., Bloomer, R.J. The impact of religious fasting on human health. Nutr J 9, 57 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-57
2. El Ati J, Beji C, Danguir J. Increased fat oxidation during Ramadan fasting in healthy women: an adaptative mechanism for body-weight maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;62:302–307. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2995774/#B14
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