Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk for 29 or 30 days during Ramadan, which means Muslims fast for a mean period of 12 to 14 hours during the day, consume one large meal after dusk, and a lighter meal before dawn. The quality and standard of foods eaten and eating patterns are changed considerably. Alterations in eating modes and infrequent meal schedules during Ramadan may cause reduced food intake and may affect important enzymatic and metabolic responses and different aspects of human health.
During fasting hours when no food or drink is consumed, the body uses its stored carbohydrates (within the liver and muscles) and fat to supply energy once all the calories from the foods eaten during the night is consumed. The kidneys play a role in conserving the maximum amount of water as possible by reducing the amount lost in urination. However, the body cannot avoid losing water while urination, either through your skin, or through breathing and sweating if it’s warm. It depends on the weather conditions and the duration of the fast.
Most of the people who fast during Ramadan will experience mild dehydration, which can led to headaches, tiredness and difficulty in concentrating. Several scientific studies have suggested that fasting isn’t harmful to health, as long as enough fluids are consumed after breaking the fast to recharge the essential minerals and nutrients lost during the day. However, if you’re unable to stand up or feel dizziness, or any sort of disorientation, you ought to immediately drink water after mild intervals, ideally with sugar and salt. For those having regular consumption of caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea during the day, the shortage of caffeine during the fast may initially cause headaches and tiredness but will ease over the course of Ramadan due to adaptation of body to adjust without caffeine while fasting.
Once the fast is broken, the body is rehydrated and gains energy from the foods and drinks consumed during iftaar. Drinking plenty of fluids and consuming fluid-rich foods, like fruits, green leafy vegetables, yogurt, dahi & nutrient rich soups is vital to make up fluids lost during the day and to start the subsequent day of fasting well hydrated.
Salt stimulates thirst, so it is recommended to avoid consuming salty foods. The pre-dawn meal, suhoor, provides fluids and energy for the day of fasting ahead, so making healthy choices can serve to cope better with the fast. While iftaar meals are more than a celebration as per traditional Arab culture, with families and friends coming together to break their fasts, it’s important to not go beyond limits when eating during every meal of Ramadan. Avoid consuming tons of deep fried foods, creamy and sweet foods that may cause you to put on excess weight. Instead, Ramadan can be an opportunity to those who want to utilise it in efficient way and can be helpful to enhance the balance of your diet.
The changes in eating habits and lack of fluids during the day may cause constipation in some people. Remedy for the same can be consuming several high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, cereals, bran, fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts alongside fluids that may help to ease constipation. Also, light physical activity, like going for a walk after iftaar, can be also helpful.
Is fasting good for health?
The health effects of Ramadan fasting are mixed, probably because the length of the fast and the weather experienced may vary depending on the place where the fast is being observed. Some studies have found that overweight or obese people reduce body fat during Ramadan. Some small studies have found an effect of Ramadan fasting on factors like blood cholesterol and triglycerides (fat within the blood) and seen short-term improvement in some cases, although some studies found no effect. There have also been some small studies that suggest that Ramadan fasting may have a short-term beneficial effect on the immune system. In both cases, the results of studies are found to be mixed and further research is needed.
What to eat and drink at iftaar and suhoor:
Iftaar – When breaking the fast, take plenty of fluids, low-fat fluid-rich foods and fruits/vegetables containing some natural sugars for energy (avoid consuming tons of foods or drinks with added sugars).
Drinks – Water, milk, fruit juices or natural smoothies without creams. Water provides hydration with no calories or added sugars. Milk-based drinks and fruits can provide some natural sugars and nutrients and also improve the fasting ability but avoid drinks with added sugars after breaking the fast as these can provide an excessive amount of sugars and calories.
Dates – Traditionally they are eaten to break the fast since the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), a d are a great way to break the fast as they provide natural sugars for energy, provides minerals like potassium, copper and manganese, and are a rich source of fiber. You could also try other dried fruits like apricots, figs, raisins or prunes, which also provide fiber and nutrients.
Fruits – A traditional way to break the fast in South Asian cultures, eating fuit provides natural sugars for energy, fluid and some vitamins and minerals.
Soup – Traditionally predominant in many Arab countries, soup is a light way to break the fast for instant hydration. Traditional soups are based on a meat broth and often contain pulses like lentils, beans, and starchy foods like grains, providing nutrients and energy.
After breaking the fast – The pattern of taking meals varies with different cultures and traditions but it should be kept in mind that the foods you eat provide a balance of starchy foods, whole-grains, fruit and vegetables, dairy foods and protein-rich foods like meat, fish, eggs and beans. For example you’ll have wide variety of delicacies including fish, meat, vegetables and pulses, served with rice, chapattis and yogurt. It’s natural to recharge yourself with nutrients, but an attempt should be made for lesser consumption of foods viz fatty and sugary foods/drinks. In Ramadan there is less and relatively a short time for eating and drinking to energise your body with all the essential nutrients and fluids in least available time. The quality of your diet therefore is important during Ramadan. Also Time Management of taking meals will play a pivotal role in keeping yourself energetic. After having meals once after digesting your food, you could try doing some light exercise such as going for a walk.
Suhoor – Drink plenty of fluids, it’s better to choose fluid-rich foods & make sure you are well hydrated for the day ahead and go for starchy foods for energy, choosing high-fiber or wholegrain varieties whatever possible as these can help in keeping you feeling fuller and may aid in better digestion.
Oats – These are whole grains and you could choose porridge, which will also provide fluids as it’s made of milk or water, muesli, yogurt or overnight oats. You can experiment with fresh or edible fleshy fruit, nuts or seeds as toppings.
High-fiber breakfast cereals – These provide plenty of fiber and are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, providing extra nutrients. Since they are consumed with milk, you also get fluid and nutrients like calcium, Iodine and B complex vitamins from the milk.
Starchy foods like rice – Generally it is rice pudding with fruit or experiment with other grains with dairy or fruit. If you choose savory dishes at suhoor then it is a good idea, but ensure that these aren’t too salty or else they’ll cause quenching thirst during the fast.
Yogurt/Dahi/Lassi – This can be a good food to include at suhoor as it provides nutrients like protein, calcium, Iodine, B vitamins and also contains fluid. Addition of cereals and fruits will make it more palatable.
Breads – Go for wholegrain flour based breads as these provide more fiber, for example whole meal toast or chapattis. Avoid combining bread with salty foods like cheese, or preserved meats. You could try nut butters (without added salt), soft cheese, or banana. As bread is fairly dry, ensure you drink water or other fluids alongside otherwise you could have fluid-rich foods like a soup, which is a traditional food at suhoor in some countries.
If the above-mentioned scientific tips are followed in spirit, it makes you feel satiated and keeps the physical problems like weakness and nausea at bay. Especially in this time of rising Covid-19 pandemic, a person should be nutritionally sound to fight any mutated strain of virus. Precaution is mandatory for keeping the virus at bay and we must ensure following the guidelines as put forward by Health Department and District Administrations from time to time and other mandatory SOP’s related to Covid-19. Together we can break the chain. Stay safe, eat a nutrient rich, proper and healthy diet during this month of Ramadan which will prepare you for the day ahead. A well-balanced and nutritious diet can help you sail throughout the holy month.
[Source: British Nutrition Foundation].
The writer is Advisor, Social Sector Development (F&CA), Government of Madhya Pradesh AIGGPA, Bhopal.