By Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed
Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Qur’an makes dawn-to-dusk fasting mandatory for all healthy adult Muslims and refrain from eating, drinking evil actions and physical needs. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is primarily meant to elevate our piety and bring us close to Allah Almighty. However, it has recently been recognized that fasting has good a impact on health as well.
Besides providing an opportunity to improve self control and discipline, the month of Ramadan, teaches one to improve self-restraint and discipline and learn to avoid smoking and overeating. This month allows us to give the stomach a much needed rest, breakdown and expel the accumulated toxins from our body.
In the following lines we will try to understand about the food choices that can maximize benefits of fasting and minimize any complications so that we are able to fast for the whole month of Ramadan without any interruptions.
Fasting is good for health
Fasting has been practiced by humans belonging to different religions and traditions for thousands of years for spirituality, curing illness and strengthening body.
Qur’an says, O you who believe! Observing As-Sawm (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al-Muttaqoon (pious)”[al-Baqarah 2:183].
It is a common experience to have a dislike for food when we are sick. Even animals don’t eat and drink when they are sick. The reason is that the body wants to spend its energy in curing and healing rather than in digesting food. It has been demonstrated by research that fasting during the month of Ramadan reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, lowers the risk of diabetes and coronary artery disease and promotes cardiovascular benefits. However the people with diseases like diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, hyperuricaemia and cardiovascular diseases and so on should consult their doctor and take medical advice before fasting.
Several studies have shown that Ramadan fasting causes many physiological, biochemical and metabolic changes in the body. Body enters into a state of fasting eight hours after eating, when digested food has been absorbed and the body starts consuming glucose stored in liver and muscle for energy. Once it is over, body starts consuming the stored fat for obtaining energy. Losing fat leads to loss of weight as well as toxins. Other studies have shown that Ramadan fasting increases the number of blood cells especially infection fighting white blood cells (WBCs). Fasting also leads to reduction of bad cholesterol specifically LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) while increasing good cholesterol levels like HDL (high Density Lipoprotein). Moreover, fasting reduces body weight, blood glucose levels, waist circumference, body mass index, systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as anxiety levels. It also decreases inflammation, hampers production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and diminishes chances of cancer. Many other research studies have shown that fasting is associated with release of serotonin, endocannabinoids and beta-endorphin which increase our alertness and enhance our mood. Fortunately, there are no adverse effects of fasting on the brain, heart, lung, liver, kidney, haematologic and endocrine profile and cognitive functions. Intermittent fasting has thus scientifically been proven to be a healthy, non- pharmacological means to improve health and has advantages over calorie restriction or hard-core-fasting.
To get maximum benefits of fasting it is important to take balanced diet at Suhoor and Iftaar so as to provide sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and salts to remain healthy and active. At the same time, we should avoid overeating.
According to nutrition experts, Suhoor should be light yet wholesome to provide sufficient energy to last during the long hours of fasting. Carbohydrates are a good source of energy since they provide glucose to our cells. Carbohydrates may be simple or complex depending upon number, chains and branching of sugar molecules. Simple carbohydrates are digested rapidly and are not a good option for Suhoor. Examples of simple sugar containing foods are table sugar, jams, biscuits, chocolates, juices and soft drinks. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand are slow digesting and make us feel fuller for long time. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole plant foods such as potatoes, corn, peas, beans, pumpkin, whole grain breads, and green leafy vegetables. One good thing about complex carbohydrates is that they are also rich sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber helps to prevent constipation especially when we are not taking fluids during fasting hours. While we like to eat white rice we should include above mentioned foods especially potatoes, beans and salad in our everyday suhoor.
Protein is another important source of energy and is important in sustaining metabolism. Fish, meat and skinless chicken are the good sources of protein that supply required amino acids to our body. Other sources of protein are milk, cheese, yoghurt, beans, eggs and nuts. However, spicy and fried foods should be limited or avoided since they can cause indigestion and acidity.
Water is very important especially when we have hot summer days and our body continuously loses water due to breathing, sweating and urination. Excessive loss of fluid or dehydration can cause weakness, tiredness, muscle cramps, lack of energy and dizziness. Therefore it is important to drink sufficient amounts of fluids in the form of water, lassi and so on. at Suhoor. Juices and other beverages should however be avoided. Consuming salads containing high water content vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes is also a good way to keep ourselves hydrated.
After long hours of fasting it is the time to restore energy levels. It is Sunnah and Islamic tradition to break the fast with water and dates. While water rehydrates our body, dates provide instant energy in the form of sugars like fructose and dextrose. Dates are soft, delicious and packed with impressive list of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals especially iron and potassium. Iron is an important constituent of hemoglobin which carries oxygen from our lungs to all body cells. Potassium on the other hand is an important electrolyte of our cells and body fluids that helps our muscles and nerves to function properly and regulates our heart rate and blood pressure. Dates are a rich source of dietary fiber which work as laxatives and helps in bowel movements and prevents constipation. Eating watermelon at Iftar is also a good option to quench thirst and re-boost our body. Juicy watermelons are a good source of water, electrolytes, sugar, proteins, vitamins and other minerals.
The dinner is generally taken after offering Maghrib Salah. Dinner should also include all types of foods like rice or bread as sources of carbohydrates, meat, chicken, fish, legumes, dairy or eggs as sources of protein and salad made from vegetables and fruits.
It is Sunnah and health benefit to take a stroll or do a light exercise after dinner and holy month of Ramadan comes with the best exercise in the form of Taraweeh prayers.
Let us eat healthy and balanced diet and stay healthy during the month of Ramadan and continue following the same routine afterwards.
—The author has done Ph.D. from the Department of Biochemistry, University of Kashmir and is currently Senior Scientist at Kansas University Medical Center, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]