A healthy Ramadan : Eating right and Staying Healthy
The holy month of Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar and a significant month in which Muslims globally observe the obligatory month-long fasting, as decreed by Allah in Qur’an Sural al-Baqarah 2:183-185.
The command by Allah to fast, its significance and the goal of fasting are enshrined in three verses of Surah Al Baqarah (183-185), hence the overwhelming seriousness Muslims attach to the holy month of Ramadan.
During the month of fasting (Sawm), which covers a period of 29-30 days depending on the sighting of the moon, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, intending to do so in the obedience of Allah.
Fasting, known as Siyam or Sawm in Islam, technically means to abstain from food, drink, sexual activities and all that which invalidates the fast.
Fasting is regarded as the fourth pillar of Islam.
The basic objective of this month-long fasting is not only for spiritual well-being but also to help shape the behavior and pattern of the lives of Muslims and to make them ideal beings. For Muslims, Ramadan is a significant period to practice self-discipline as well as to cleanse the body and soul from impurities. It is also a time to fully devote oneself to the worship of Allah and reconnect with the Qur’an.
Ramadan is also known as the month of charity and sympathy, as the physical ritual provides a practical understanding of the suffering of others hence Muslims tend to share and give more during this month. Ramadan is the period where the highest virtue of Islam, piety, is realized.
Relevance of Fasting in Islam
Fasting is incumbent on every Muslim except children until they reach the age of puberty, the sick, people with intellectual disabilities, travelers and pregnant, breastfeeding and menstruating women. However, they are expected to fast later in the year, when they have no reason for exemption, to make up for the lost times.
During the month of Ramadan, there is a break from normal dietary patterns, following a strict schedule on eating and drinking. It is key to still remain healthy during this season, for overall well-being and ability to complete the fast.
Many people seize the opportunity to shed off some pounds while others may gain weight after Ramadan and this can be related to poor food choices. Being overweight /obese predisposes one to lifestyle diseases such as Diabetes, Hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases which are already on the rise, contributing to increasing morbidity and mortality rates.
During this period of fasting, Muslims ‘empty their stomach to feed their souls’, figuratively speaking. What would we do without food? The stomach is not entirely emptied because Ramadan is not a punishment or a hunger strike. The diet during Ramadan fasting should be simple and not differ much from an individual’s usual diet, it must contain foods from all the major food groups. Two meals are taken daily during this period. The predawn meal known as Suhoor and the sunset meal known as Iftar. The quality of these meals is a determinant of whether one comes out healthy or not after the fast. These two meals can be considered the main meals for the day and healthy snacks included in between.
Food has a great significance in Islam. It is associated with one’s relationship with God. The Qur’an 20:84 states “Eat of the good and wholesome things that we have provided for your sustenance, but indulge in no excess therein.” Planning your meals ahead of time is the best you can do to prevent settling for anything that comes your way. Do your grocery shopping ahead of time and buy all the healthy foods you will need. Incorporating complex carbohydrates, rich in fiber to the predawn meal will help give sustainable energy throughout the long hours of fasting. Some examples of complex carbohydrates include whole meal bread (wheat bread), cereals like millet, corn, oats, wheat, brown rice, beans. Vegetables are a good source of fiber as well and should be added to the meal. The fiber helps keep the bowels healthy and prevent constipation which can be a challenge during this period.
Also include some protein rich foods such as cooked lean meat, 1-2 boiled eggs, fish, a handful of nuts and seeds to provide some extra energy to keep you going. This meal may form the larger of the two but do not overeat as this could lead to feeling sluggish and fatigued during the day.
What to do after iftar
1. At Iftar, it is Prophetic tradition (Sunnah) to break your fast with some dates and a cup of plain water. The simple sugars in dates give the body a quick energy boost. Other fruits such as bananas, mangoes, watermelon and grapes can also be taken at this time. A bowl of vegetable-based soup like light soup or porridge can be taken at this time too to continue supplying adequate hydration and help relieve hunger and prevent overeating at dinner.
2. It is a good idea to perform Maghreb, the sunset prayer before settling down to eat dinner. It is common to see many family and friends gathered to eat together at this time and it is usually in the form of a feast with variety of foods and snacks to choose from. It is important to control portion sizes here and avoid food high in fats, salt and refined sugars.
3. At dinner, half of your plate or bowl should be vegetables such as alefu, okro, gboma, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, green pepper, kontomire, garden eggs, ayoyo etc. A quarter of it should be carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, yam, plantain, kenkey, banku, tuo etc and the last quarter should have protein foods like beef, chicken, fish. After a 12 hour fast, it is predictable to want to eat to compensate for your missed lunch, but it is unhealthy to binge eat, especially during dinner.
4. Eat food in small portions and chew food properly. Avoid eating in haste. This helps cut down on the number of calories (energy) consumed at a time. A recent Japanese study involving 1,700 young women concluded that eating more slowly resulted in feeling full sooner, and thus eating fewer calories at mealtime.
5. After observing the night prayer (Taraweeh), it is normal to feel hungry again. You can have a healthy bedtime snack then. A cup of tea, 1-2 servings of fruits, a cup of low-fat yoghurt, vegetable salad, a cup of fresh fruit juice.
6. Water makes up about 70 per cent of our bodies and is the most important fluid that replenishes our thirst and energy. Dehydration has many adverse side effects such as constipation, headaches, dizziness, tiredness and dry skin. Do well to drink as much fluid as possible, preferably good old water. Two cups of water or a sachet of water(500ml) every hour after Iftar till bedtime will ensure you are adequately hydrated.
7. Traditional delicacies such as koose, pinkaaso, aleh leh, maasa, etc. are commonly consumed in Ghana during this period but these are high in fat/oils and should therefore be eaten sparingly. Drinks such as sobolo and lamugin (hausa beer) are healthy but not when sugar-laden. Cut down on excess sugar and sweeten some of these drinks with pieces of fruits like apple and watermelon. Avoid fizzy and caffeinated drinks, these can cause dehydration.
8. Do not miss Suhoor to avoid low blood glucose levels during the day which can lead to terrible headaches and even fainting. Avoid sleeping immediately after meals to avoid heartburns and indigestion.
9. Fasting should not be an excuse to avoid exercising. Include a planned activity such as a 30minute walk in your routine to control or maintain your weight and stay healthy. An hour before Iftar or right after Taraweeh prayers will be convenient for exercise.
Seek medical advice when managing chronic diseases such as Diabetes or taking regular medications prior to fasting. It is also very important to involve a registered dietitian to tailor specific dietary requirements to your needs.
The key to healthy nutrition is having balanced meals and being moderate. [bctt tweet=”In Quran 7:31 Allah says “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess”. ” username=””]This goes to strengthen the point that moderation is key.
Have a healthy and fruitful Ramadan and let your food be your medicine, not your poison.
Hikmatu Abdulai , RD is a Registered Dietitian and a member of the Ghana Dietetics Association. She is a contributing writer at DietCare Ghana. You can reach her here