Health is the key to happiness and what we consume directly affects our health. The month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to focus on bringing back a balanced and healthy lifestyle to your life. Through fasting, you begin to learn how to manage your eating habits, how to improve self-control and discipline. This blessed month requires you to give your stomach a break and by doing so you are able to break down and expel the accumulated toxins in your body. It is also a great opportunity to start some new healthy habits and get rid of some bad ones. In this Ramadan special, we will give you a guide on physiological changes that occur during fasting, foods you should eat and foods you should avoid before and after the fast, potential health risks and how to deal with them as well as some tips for smokers on how to deal with the absence of nicotine.
Physiological Changes That Occur
Some people question whether fasting is good or bad for your health. Here we will discuss the changes that occur in the body during a fast. Technically speaking, the body enters into a fasting state eight hours after the last meal. This is when the gut finishes its absorption of nutrients. In normal circumstances, glucose is the main source of energy. Glucose is stored in liver and muscles. During the initial stages of a fast, glucose is used up for energy. Later in the fast, fat becomes the next source of energy when glucose is depleted. ‘Starvation’ mode is entered only when the fast lasts for days. This is when the body turns to protein for energy and wastes muscle, which is clearly unhealthy. Protein is released from the breakdown of muscle and this is why some people might look haggard and weak. During Ramadan, the fast is only from dawn (suhoor) to dusk (iftaar), which is ample time to replenish energy stores for meals between dusk (iftaar) to dawn (suhoor). This allows a smoother transition from utilizing glucose to fat as the main source of energy. The use of fat for energy aids in weight loss, preserves the muscle and lowers cholesterol levels. The weight loss that occurs also results in better control of sugar and reduces blood pressure. The toxins stored in the fat are also dissolved and removed from the body. After a few days of the intermittent fast, higher levels of endorphins (feel-good hormones) are found in the blood and allows you to feel more alert and provides an overall feeling of general mental well-being.
Nutrition during Ramadan
During Ramadan, fasting can improve someone’s health. But if the correct diet is not followed, the benefits of fasting will be negated. What is most important is what is consumed during the non-fasting hours. People tend to overeat during iftaar, but that is quite possibly the worst way you can. It not only harms the body, but it can also interfere with the person’s spiritual growth. A diet with less than normal amount of food but that is sufficiently balanced will keep the person healthy. A balanced diet with quantities of nutrients, salts and water is important.
Complex carbohydrates are foods that will help release energy slowly during the fasting hours. Complex carbs are found in grains and seeds such as barley, wheat, oats, beans, lentils, wholemeal flour, and basmati rice. Fibre-rich foods are also foods that digest slowly, making you feel full longer. These include bran, whole wheat, grains and seeds, potatoes with the skin, vegetables such as green beans, and almost all kinds of fruit such as apricots, prunes, figs, apples, etc.
You should avoid foods that are heavily processed and fast-burning foods that contain refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour as well as any fatty foods such as desserts, chocolates and sweets. Deep fried foods should also be avoided such as pakoras, samosas, fried dumplings, parathas, and greasy pastries. If you would like to have samosas, have them baked. One recipe is a baked spinach and feta cheese samosa. You can find the recipe in How Good is Your: Samosa. If you are craving something sweet, you can have rasmalai or even barfee, as these are milk based sweets. Avoid deep frying, frying and even curries with excessive oils as cooking methods. Instead cook by either shallow frying, baking or grilling.
The meal for suhoor should be a moderate wholesome meal that is filling and provides enough energy to last the day. Eat slow digesting foods such as complex carbs and fiber-rich foods as mentioned above.
The meal for iftaar should also be moderate and provide enough energy to refuel yourself. You should not have an entire feast, but it should be sufficient enough. Have milk, dates, lamb/mutton and oats. Include fruits and vegetables such as olives, onions, cucumbers, figs, grapes and lentils such as daal. Fish is also a good evening meal as it provides omega-3 and has good protein. Rooh afza is a good sugary drink to increase your energy levels quickly.
Potential Health Risks and How to Deal with Them
Fasting can give rise to some potential health risks. But here we will tell you what you can do to prevent or deal with them throughout the day.
The stomach releases gastric juices that digest food and kill bacteria. If too much acid is produced, you may experience heartburn or indigestion. During fasting, the production of gastric juices is decreased, however the thought of food or the smell of it produces a psychological response from the brain to produce more acid. If there is more acid than food to digest, you may experience indigestion. The basic idea is to be productive throughout the day, and not think about food. You can even take medication for heartburn, such as antacids, at suhoor. Make sure you consult your doctor first.
Those individuals that inject insulin are advised to not fast, as there is a potential risk to the health when you don’t take insulin. People who control their diabetes with tablets should consult with their doctors to discuss any change in medicine regime such as when to take it. Tablets that are long acting may increase the risk of low blood sugar levels coupled with the fasting times, so consult your doctor for short acting medication.
Headaches are fairly common during a fast. They could be caused by dehydration, hunger, lack of rest and/or the abstinence of caffeine and/or nicotine. At suhoor make sure you drink plenty of water, as much as a liter of water. Also, make sure you get 7-8 hours or sleep, in total. That means you might have to start sleeping earlier, to compensate for the time during the early morning for suhoor. Also, avoid direct sunlight and wear sunglasses to reduce the effect of glare from the sun. Pain medication such as Paracetamol may be taken after iftaar if the headache is severe. Drinking enough water during and after iftaar will also help.
Dehydration is also common. The body continues to lose water and salts through breathing, sweat and urine. During extreme heat, the water is lost faster, as well as any increased physical exertion. Make sure you drink enough water during suhoor to compensate for the water lost during the day, as well as after iftaar. Atleast 1 liter of water should be good.
Constipation can be an irritating problem for a person during a fast. You should maintain good hydration during suhoor and iftaar, eat lots of fruit and vegetables for the meals, and increase the fiber content using bran. These will all help keep your bowel motions as regular as possible.
The lack of food, water, changes in routine, shorter periods of sleep and the lack of nicotine or caffeine can all contribute to increased stress levels. People tend to get angrier quickly. Managing stress is very important. Take up yoga during the day or meditate for as little as 10 minutes. Relax in a chair, avoid any kind of noise (although soft gentle music might help), close your eyes and deep breath by inhaling through your nose and slowly exhaling through your mouth.
Tips for Smokers
Ramadan is a time to work on getting rid of bad habits. Smoking is one of them, but it can be very hard for people to quit smoking or go through the day without a cigarette during fasting. It may be hard, but fortunately it’s not impossible. Here are some tips you can use:
- Be productive throughout the day. Focus on your work, school, and household chores. Just make sure you stay busy.
- Avoid places that remind you of smoking. If you have a specific room that you smoke in, avoid that room, or avoid those steps that you might sit down and light up a cigarette. It may not be entirely possible to avoid everywhere you go that reminds you of smoking, but changing some patterns can be helpful.
- Join a support group to help you get through the day and even to support you to quit for good. Talking to other people is always helpful
- When you get a craving, divert your attention by watching tv, reading something or having a chat with someone
- If you really want to quit for good, but still crave the nicotine, taking nicotine gum at night can help with your cravings. It can slowly give you the aid to resist smoking a cigarette.
And remember, if you can fight the urge to not smoke during the day, you can fight the urge to not smoke at night either. This repetitive cycle will eventually give you the strength to quit for good.
Have fun during this blessed month and stay healthy. If you have any questions, feel free to contact Team HTV and make sure you pick up our complete Ramadan Health Guide.