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Nutritional & Health Tips During Ramadan

Nutritional & Health Tips During Ramadan

Ramadan Kareem!

Fasting during Ramadan, if done correctly, aids in improving one’s health. However, if done incorrectly, it can cause more harm than good. You can use this Holy month to get into shape, detox, de-stress or even give up on smoking.

During June ‘17 and July ‘17, we will share with you an array of simple usable nutrition tips to ensure adequate nutrition and continued good health.

Make this season a time of revival in spirit, soul and body by making a few lifestyle changes. Planning your meals and Ramadan recipes ahead will help you be organised during this month and maximize your energy and strength.

Here are some tips:

1. A healthy Iftar goes hand in hand with the traditions: a. Starting with 2 dates, then a glass of water or laban, then start the meal with a warm bowl of soup, a salad and the main course. Of course moderation is key to health!!! b. Starting your Iftar meal with a warm soup comforts the stomach after a long day of fasting, replenishes your body with fluids and help prepare the digestive system for this blessed meal. c. A balanced main dish at Iftar should contain a source of carbohydrates like rice, pasta, potatoes or burghul, as well as some form of protein like beef, chicken or fish, in addition to cooked vegetables. Balance and moderation are key to health!

2. Suhour is a vital meal in Ramadan. It gives you strength and vitality for the day and can make fasting easier and tolerable. Make sure that this meal is rich in slowly absorbed carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, rice and whole grain cereals that can help maintain your blood sugar levels.

3. Stay hydrated during Ramadan; a. Drink plenty of water during the holy month of Ramadan. At least 8 glasses distributed in small quantities so not to feel bloated. b. To prevent getting thirsty during Ramadan, drink plenty of water, avoid foods that are too spicy or salty, and consume more fruits and vegetables that are refreshing! c. A change in routine, like fasting during Ramadan, could lead to constipation. To avoid this, enrich your diet with fibre by eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. Drink plenty of water and try to be active whenever possible.

4. Adopt a correct way of eating: a. Divide your main course into three parts. Have one quarter of the plate filled with complex carbohydrates, one quarter with lean meat or meat alternatives, and half with vegetables. This will ensure that you have a healthy balanced meal. b. If you feel full quickly and are unable to complete your Iftar, you can delay your main course until after your Maghreb prayer. This will ensure that you have enough time to digest your dates, soup and salad, preventing you from feeling uncomfortable as a result of overeating after a long day of fasting. c. Having three meals is still important during this holy month: Iftar, a light evening snack, and Suhour. This would help you avoid continuous snacking throughout the non-fasting hours.

5. Avoid being more sedentary during the month of Ramadan. To burn extra calories, make sure to be active by at least going for a walk every day, 2 hours after having Iftar which allows you time to digest your meal. Do simple stretches during the day to keep your muscles supple.

6. Eating sweets immediately after Iftar will increase the size of your stomach and cause a delay in digestion. It will also cause a fluctuation in the blood glucose level, which will lead to you craving for more sweets. It is recommended to have sweets in moderation 2-3 hours after Iftar.

7. For plenty of vitamins and minerals vital to good health, make sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables during Ramadan, and to include a variety of vegetable in your soups!

8. People who suffer from headaches or dizziness due to low blood sugar levels during the fasting period should break the fast at Iftar time by starting with 2-3 dates which will help replenish blood sugar levels.

9. Some people tend to eat more during Ramadan and this can lead to weight gain. Eating a healthy Iftar, eating starters and sweets in moderation, choosing more fruits and vegetables, avoiding sweetened beverages, and being active everyday will help you maintain your weight.

10. Eating your soup and salad slowly at Iftar will help you feel full and prevent you from overeating later from the main dish and sweets.

11. Delightful sweets in Ramadan are hard to resist. To avoid consuming too many calories, indulge and enjoy with your family the tasty and creative delights while making sure you always practice portion control and moderation!!!

12. Choose dates, dried fruits and nuts as part of your diet during Ramadan. These provide healthy nutrients and are packed with energy, thus helping you keep your vitality during this month.

13. To make your dishes lighter during Ramadan, adopt healthy cooking methods such as grilling, boiling, simmering and roasting and add taste to the food with a wealth of vegetables, herbs and seasonings.

14. For balanced nutrition, try not to rely solely on Iftar to give you all your nutritional requirements. You can have other light meals before bed time such as low fat yoghurt and a whole-wheat cheese sandwich, or some dried fruits and nuts. Not to forget your Suhour that can include a glass of low fat milk, whole wheat bread and some legumes.

15. Avoid salty foods, such as canned or processed foods, salted nuts, and pickles, because these will increase your thirst during the fasting period.

16. 2-3 dates are enough to break your fast on. Remember dates are also rich in calories, so don't forget that moderation is required to help you maintain a healthy weight during Ramadan.

17. Make sure your soup includes generous amounts of vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, peas, green beans, squash, and carrots. These add vitamins and minerals to your soup as well as fibres which are essential for a healthy digestive system.

18. Be creative with your salad. The more varied and colourful vegetables you include in your salad, the more assorted are the nutrients and antioxidants you get. These help protect your body cells and promote good health especially during this holy month.

19. Be moderate in your consumption of appetisers such as samosas, because deep fried foods are high in calories and fat that could increase cholesterol levels in the blood. Instead, when you can, try to have them baked and stuffed with low fat cheese.

20. Have Ramadan drinks such as jallab and dried apricot syrup in moderate amounts. Although they are a good source of sugar and some vitamins they are also a rich source of calories, adding up to your caloric intake. To quench your thirst, drink more water.

21. If you are a coffee drinker, try and reduce your coffee consumption two weeks prior to the Holy month of Ramadan in order to avoid headaches and sleepiness. If you love to drink coffee during Ramadan, have a cup one to two hours after having a healthy balanced Iftar.

22. To control your calorie intake during Ramadan, try to limit your portions, especially sweets. Instead choose one type of sweets that you like every day and have a 3-finger size portion.

23. If you are a regular athlete used to moderate or vigorous exercise, you can still maintain this by incorporating your exercise session just before Iftar. Make sure to hydrate immediately after your session and eat slowly to replenish your fluid and nutrients.

24. You can prepare lower calorie sweets at home by using low fat dairy products such as low fat milk and cream, using a moderate amount of oil and sugar, baking your sweets or having them raw when you can.

25. Make sure that each of your meals include complex carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes and burghul which are absorbed slowly in your body, ensuring you have a stable level of glucose in your blood stream for 4-5 hours.

26. Meats, legumes, eggs and dairy products are rich in proteins. Ensure you have at least one of these sources in every Ramadan meal since proteins are very important for your body cells. They also increase your satiety level thus reducing the temptation for eating sweets.

27. Eating your soup and salad slowly at Iftar will help you feel full and prevent you from overeating later from the main dish and sweets.

28. For better health, be moderate in adding salt to your cooked dishes especially during Ramadan. Instead use vegetables, herbs and spices to add flavour and colour to your meals!

29. Continue to have small meals and at least five different servings of fresh fruits vegetables. Plan on developing a regular exercise program once you've ended your fast. You can slowly build on the light exercise you were doing and transition to a more intense work out. Follow these simple techniques to incorporate exercise in your daily routine to keep the weight in check before you start a vigorous exercise plan: a. Set simple goals, such as walking to the Mosque instead of using the car and using the stairs instead of an elevator. b. Stretch your muscles several times during the day to keep your muscles supple. c. Park your car at a comfortable walking distance from your office or the supermarket. d. Walk to your colleagues instead of talking on the phone. e. Take a break after every one hour and walk a short distance.

What goes on with our body during fasting?

Is fasting good or bad for health, is a question we often face. The changes that occur in the body in response to fasting depend on the length of the continuous fast. Let us look at what happens to the body during fasting: the physiology of fasting.  Technically the body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finishes absorption of nutrients from the food.  In the normal state, body glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles, is the body’s main source of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is used up first to provide energy.  Fat becomes the next store source of energy for the body. Small quantities of glucose are also ‘manufactured’ through other mechanisms in the liver.  Only with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks, does the body eventually turns to protein for energy and enters what is commonly known as ‘starvation’, and it is clearly unhealthy.

Ramadan fasting and its benefits:

 As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk, there is ample opportunity to replenish energy stores at pre-dawn and dusk meals and prevent the breakdown of muscle for protein.  The use of fat for energy aids weight loss, preserving the muscles, and in the long run reduces your cholesterol levels.  In addition weight loss results in better control of diabetes and reduces blood pressure.  A detoxification process also seems to occur, as any toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body.  After a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood which results in a better level of alertness and an overall feeling of general mental well-being.

Balanced food and fluid intake is important between fasts. The kidney is very efficient at maintaining the body’s water and salts, such as sodium and potassium. However, these can be lost through sweating, to prevent muscle break down, meals must contain adequate levels of ‘energy food’ such as carbohydrates and some fat. Hence, a balanced diet with adequate quantities of nutrients, salts and water is vital.

Foods that Harm and Foods that Benefit during Fasting

The fasts of Ramadan can improve a person’s health but - if the correct diet is not followed - can possibly worsen it! The deciding factor is not the fast itself, but rather what is consumed in the non-fasting hours.

To fully benefit from fasting a person should spare a great deal of thought to the type and quantity of food they will indulge in. A diet that has less than a normal amount of food but is sufficiently balanced will keep a person healthy and active during the month of Ramadan. The diet should be simple and not differ too much from one’s normal everyday diet. It should contain foods from all the major food groups.

Complex Carbohydrates are foods that will help release energy slowly during the long hours of fasting. Complex carbohydrates are found in grains and seeds, like barley, wheat, oats, millets, semolina, beans, lentils, wholemeal flour, basmati rice, etc. Fibre-rich foods are also digested slowly and include bran, cereals, whole wheat, grains and seeds, potatoes with the skin, vegetables such as green beans and almost all fruit including apricots, prunes, figs, etc. Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal should be a wholesome, moderate meal that is filling and provides enough energy for many hours. It is therefore particularly important to include slowly-digesting foods in the suhoor.

Foods to avoid are the heavily-processed, fast-burning foods that contain refined carbohydrates in the form of sugar, white flour, etc. as well as of course, too much fatty foods (e.g. cakes, biscuits, chocolates and sweets). It may also be worth avoiding the caffeine content in drinks such as tea, coffee and cola. (Caffeine is a diuretic and stimulates faster water loss through urination).

Iftar is the meal which breaks the day’s fast. This meal could include dates which provide a refreshing burst of much needed energy. Fruit juices will also have a similar, revitalising effect. The meal should remain a meal and not become a feast! Try to minimise the rich, special dishes that traditionally celebrate the fast. Regular and continuous activities like brisk walking, jogging or swimming improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs and burn off extra calories. Other activities may give you additional benefits like increased flexibility and muscle strength, depending on the type of activity.

Exercising While Fasting

Have a realistic exercise plan. You may want to run instead of walk, or think you can handle heavy weightlifting, but fasting changes what your body can normally do. Plan to include regular low-intensity exercise. Once your fast ends, you'll be able to return to your normal activity routine. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise routine during fasting, if you have any medical history. Here are some tips to have ease with working out:

  If you have any pain or discomfort or you feel lightheaded, nauseous or dizzy, discontinue the exercise immediately. 

  Opt for a less vigorous workout. A low-intensity exercise may be more beneficial as it will ensure that your body doesn't use protein for fuel. Choose exercises like walking instead of running. Moderate walking is a low-intensity way to stimulate your heart rate. 

 Do light slow, deliberate movements that not only balance and stimulate the body, but calm and clear the mind. Stretches, Yoga, Tai-chi are recommended. 

 Include higher intensity exercises after eating. If you're following an intermittent fasting program or a fasting diet for weight loss, you can still include more vigorous intensity exercise. 

 After meals or snacks your body has had the chance to replace its primary fuel of glycogen. You'll also have a more steady supply of glucose in your body from your recently eaten meals or snacks. Some experts recommend only doing your higher intensity workouts after meals to help ensure you have enough fuel (carbohydrates) to last you throughout your workout.

Potential Health Complications and Possible Remedies 

a. Heartburn (Indigestion) The stomach is an acidic environment, designed to digest food and kill bacteria. The stomach and oesophagus (gullet) are normally protected from this acid, by the body’s own special juices, and “valves” between these two organs. If either too much acid is produced or the valve at the bottom of the oesophagus is “faulty”, you may experience heartburn. Fasting usually reduces the amount of acid produced, but thoughts of food or the smell of it makes the brain order the stomach to produce more acid. Hence if there is a net increase in acid, heartburn could be a problem during the fast. Those who are on regular medication for indigestion are advised to continue taking them, at the pre-dawn meal for instance. The control of heartburn or belching can be aided by eating in moderation, avoiding oily, deep fried or very spicy food. Reducing your caffeine intake and/or stopping smoking can also be of benefit, if relevant. Preparations such as peppermint oil may help reduce belching or colic. Sleeping with your head raised on a few pillows and long term weight loss may also help prevent heartburn.

b. Poor Control of Diabetes Those injecting insulin are advised not to fast, as the potential risk to health, both in the short and long term, of not taking insulin is too great. People, who have their diabetes under control using tablets, should ensure that they visit their GP prior to Ramadan, in order to discuss any possible changes to their drug regime which would facilitate a safe fast. If not, such patients are at risk of poor control of their diabetes during and outside the fasting times. Regular self-monitoring of your blood glucose is strongly advised. Low blood sugar levels (a hypo) is dangerous, and if untreated may lead to faint or fits, and hence must be strictly avoided. Feeling dizzy, sweaty and disorientated may all suggest “a hypo”. If suspected, you should have a sugary drink, or place sugar or a sugar-rich sweet below the tongue, immediately. Long acting tablets increase the risk of having “a hypo”, and should be changed to a shorter acting variety before embarking on a fast. Diabetics with further complications, such as angina or heart failure, stroke, retinopathy (eye disease), nephropathy (kidney disease) and neuropathy (nerve disease of feet/hands with numbness/loss of feeling) should seek careful advice from their doctor before starting a fast.

c. Headache This is a common problem and has many causes. Headaches during a fast could commonly be due to dehydration or hunger, inadequate rest, or due to the absence of addictive substances such as caffeine or nicotine. A moderate and balanced diet, especially not missing the pre-dawn meal, consuming adequate quantities of fluid and if necessary taking a dose of painkillers such as paracetamol, may all go a long way towards either preventing, or reducing the risk of developing a disabling headache. Headaches can be prevented by sensible measures, such as not exposing oneself to direct sunlight, wearing a hat when out, using sunglasses to reduce the effect of glare from the sun or relieving any tense muscles by a short gentle massage.

d. Dehydration Dehydration is a common occurrence during a fast. The body continues to lose water and salts through breathing, sweat and urine; the quantity of water loss will vary depending on the weather, how much you had to drink before your fast, the degree of physical exertion and the ability of the kidney to retain water and salts. Prevention is always better than cure. However, if you do not adequately re-hydrate before a fast, your risk of dehydration is increased. This risk is higher in the elderly, and in those taking tablets such as diuretics. Depending on the severity of the dehydration, you may experience a general feeling of being unwell, lethargy, muscle cramps, dizziness, disorientation and even collapse or faint. If you are unable to stand-up due to dizziness, or disorientated, you should urgently re-hydrate with regular moderate quantities of water, ideally with sugar and salt. If you faint due to dehydration, your legs should be raised above the head by others, and when awake, urgently re-hydrated as outlined above.

e. Constipation Constipation could be a very irritating problem for the person undertaking a fast. Maintaining good hydration outside the fast, eating healthily, with lots of fruit and vegetables in your diet, increasing the fibre content using bran and being active, all help to keep your bowel motions as regular as would otherwise be expected. If the problem persists, a short course of bulk laxatives may help.

f. Stress Lack of food and water, changes of routine and shorter periods of sleep can all collude to increase stress levels. Hence it is important to address any potential sources of stress in order to minimise harmful effects. This can be helped by not taking on more than you can reasonably handle, not playing sports in the hot sun, controlling your anger in advance and abstaining from smoking.

g. Obesity Strange, but true! For the unwary, or those lacking in caution, food consumed during the pre-dawn and dusk meals may lead to some unintended indulgence. But if you do not approach the fast with discipline and will, the opportunity to lose weight and become healthier is wasted.

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