The holy month of Ramadan marks the ninth month of the lunar based Islamic calendar where Muslims around the globe fast for 29-30 days. This year April 24th or 25th marked the beginning of this month. During fasting, breakfast, referred to as “Sahoor” or “Sehri” is observed before dawn followed by dinner or “iftar” observed at dusk. The end of Ramadan is marked by a festival named, “Eid ul-Fitr” where normally (pre-Covid era), families and friends come together to celebrate the end of this spiritual month.
Although fasting is mandatory on all Muslims, children and those who are ill or have a vulnerable health status (pregnancy, breastfeeding mothers, diabetics) are exempted.
The long fasts observed in North America and European countries can leave the body feeling weak and strained. Dehydration can be a common side effect given the little time between iftar and sahoor to quench one’s needs for fluids. Furthermore, many culturally relevant foods consumed during Ramadan may be fried, lacking the quality of nutrients for a healthier fast. The need to consume foods that are nutritionally dense (not in calories, rather in overall nutrition) is vital. More so this year, as we try to keep our immunity strong, it’s important to understand key nutrients for a healthier fast.
This article aims to provide the basics of a healthier fast based on nutrients that your body will need.
1. Fluids: Dehydration can lead to headaches and dizziness especially in warmer weather.
Fluids is a the number 1 key ingredient to a viable fast. Dehydration is a normal process as daily fluid losses are not matched by intake. Warmer climates can further exacerbate the risk. A key sign in assessing your body’s hydration status is the color of your urine. A darker colored urine indicates that your body is dehydrated. Dehydration can make your fasts challenging as it leads to thirst, headaches and fatigue.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that women consume 2.7 L/day (11 cups) and men 3.7 L/day (15 cups) of fluids for optimal normal functioning of the body. Given the shorter time to meet this, it’s vital to plan meals at sahoor and iftar to incorporate some of these needs. Do keep in mind, fluids do not refer to water only. Also, understand, you may not meet 100% of this recommendation.
Here are some tips to help you stay hydrated:
- Try incorporating 24 oz of fluid at each meal. This can be in the form of milk (dairy or non-dairy), fresh juice, water, tea or coffee. I would suggest to have 1 x 12oz cold and 1 x 12 oz hot drink as variety may encourage you to meet your needs. This may be the one time, you want to get your larger than life glasses out to use!
- Sip water in between iftar and bedtime.
- Try not to use too many caffeinated beverages as this can lead to further losses as caffeine is a diuretic (will make you urinate).
- If you don’t like plain water, make your own “refresher” by adding cucumbers, mint leaves, slices of lemon, lime, or oranges and/or berries to naturally flavor your water.
- Certain fruits and vegetables contain a large amount of fluid as well. Consume those as a salad or dessert to add to your fluid needs. For example, broccoli, watermelon, grapefruit, cucumber, iceberg or romaine lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, strawberries all contain more than 90% of water content per serving.
- Avoid drinks with added sugars or added salt. Both of these can lead to added thirst later. Salt helps absorb fluid, so having a bit in your meal (as you would normally cook) is OK!
2. Fibre: Lack of this vital nutrient can cause GI discomfort and constipation.
Fibre has many essential functions. Now, there are 2 types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Both have slightly different functions. Soluble fibre is one which helps control cholesterol and sugar levels. However, insoluble fibre functions to provide bowel regularity. This is an important factor in Ramadan as accompanied by low fluid intake, low fibre intake can lead to constipation (a discomfort we don’t need!). Furthermore, fibre can also play a role in satiety and slower gastric emptying, hence, helping you keep fuller for longer (who likes the pangs of hunger anyways??). Just make sure of one thing, you fluid intake is matched to your fibre intake.
The recommendations (IOM) for fibre are 25g/day for women and 38 g for men. Most Canadians only get half of that! Eating 2 meals per day would make it difficult to meet this requirement. However, aim for 8-10g per meal if you can manage without having stomach cramps.
Here are some tips to help you add fibre to your diet:
- Look for cereals, pastas, grains and bread that contain at least 5 g fibre per serving.
- Add quinoa, whole wheat pasta, Bulgar, edamame, beans (chickpeas, black beans) or avocado to your salads.
- Consider adding ground flax or chia seeds to your smoothie, milk or juice. The chia seeds will “puff” giving you a similar feel as tapioca pearls in “bubble tea”. I keep chia seeds in a jar in some water in the fridge and let them “puff”. Then I add them to my favorite refresher.
- Make meals using vegetarian protein (lentils, beans, nuts and nut butters).
- Add vegetables to your main meals. Adding cauliflower to meat stews, vegetables to meat sauces/pastas will boost the fibre content of those meals.
- Choose higher fibre fruits such as raspberries, blackberries, pears.
- Keep skins on potatoes, sweet potatoes and/or yams.
3. Fats: The wrong type can cause sluggishness and lead to less nutrient dense meals.
Fats are important during fasting as they can add vital calories to make up for the long-lasting fast. Most importantly though, many cultures support “fried” foods such as samosas, pakoras, egg rolls, pastries as iftari appetizers which can lead to over consuming unnecessary calories without the vital nourishment. Overall, fat keeps your body lubricated and the right type of fat can act as anti-inflammatory agents. They also help absorb vitamins A, D, E and K-all vital for normal functioning of the body.
Fat is categorized in 3 categories, saturated, trans fats and unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). In September 2018, Health Canada banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils in foods, the main source of industrially produced trans fat. In fact, food manufactured in Canada as well as imported have been included. So I won’t worry too much about Trans fats (although some are naturally occurring).
However, refraining from saturated fats and consuming unsaturated fats has better outcomes.
Tips to consume the right type of fat for a healthier Ramadan:
- Include healthy fats such as nuts, olives, avocado, flax seeds, chia seeds at sahoor.
- Use peanut butter or almond butter on your favorite cereal.
- Try to have fish twice/week for iftar
- Cook with healthier oils such as Sunflower, Canola, Olive (not for high heat), Flax seed, Peanut oils.
- Utilize the 80/20 rule. Eat good fats 80% of the time and 20% for indulgence. Culturally relevant foods are very important in Ramadan. Make 1 “fried” food item every 2-3 days.
- Try to limit portions of “fried” foods to a reasonable amount.Use less oil during cooking.
- Steam, bake or grill your main entree instead of using oil.
4 and 5. Vitamins and Minerals: Making metabolism work.
Fasting stimulates a different metabolic pathway in our body and much of the body’s energy needs are met with stored fat. Vitamins and mineral play an important role as co-factors to ensure we can effectively metabolism macro-nutrients including fats. Furthermore, certain micro-nutrient deficiencies such as iron, zinc and vitamin C can lead to lower immunity thus eating a well-balanced diet while fasting is important to our livelihood and overall health. Although more is not better, vitamins and minerals will help us stay energized through out the day. The most important thing one can do to ensure that they are meeting their vitamin and mineral needs is eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein to ensure all of the essential vitamins and minerals are met. Using the “plate method” to have 1/2 plate or bowl full of vegetables (fresh or cooked) is a great option. Starting your iftari with salads is a great way to ensure you will meet your micro-nutrient needs. Adding dairy or dairy substitute (milk, cheese, yogurt) will give you a boost of key minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and vitamin D.
Key messages and a few more tips:
- Meet your fluid needs.
- Choose higher fibre grains when possible and add high fibre foods to your meals.
- Have fish twice/week.
- Be mindful of the amount and type of fat you are using.
- Stick to a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains.
- Meal plan. I usually make a weekly iftari and sahoor menu to help me plan nutritious meals for the week and keep to a budget. I’m mindful of the cooking methods I use (grill, bake, curry) as well as the variety of fluids and vegetables. Below is a sample menu for 1 week. You will notice that not everything is “healthy” but portion control is key. I usually have 1-2 days of “indulgence”.
I wish you all a healthy and pleasant Ramadan. Don’t forget to add comments and share your own ways of how you make Ramadan healthy and overcome some of it’s challenges.