Everything you need to know about healthy fasting

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From ensuring a balanced iftar meal to staying hydrated, find out how to keep energised and healthy during the holy month

As Ramadan is upon us once more, thoughts turn to the coming month of joy, generosity of spirit and self-reflection.

As one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting forms a key part of that goal. A time to nourish the mind and spirituality, the abstinence of all food and drink from dawn until dusk focuses Muslims on more important matters at hand than earthly pleasures.

But how can you stay healthy, hydrated and keep yourself fuelled during fasting hours and beyond in Ramadan? We sit down with two experts to find out.

Health is wealth

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While thoughts turn to abstinence during the holy month, a healthy mind needs a healthy body, and there may be instances where some may not be able to fast.

With that in mind, it’s very important to check with your doctor, notes Sara Elsadig, clinical dietician at NMC Specialty Hospital Al Ain.

“Fasting is generally recommended for healthy Muslims,” she emphasises. “But for people who have Type 1 diabetes, their blood sugar levels and dependency on insulin means that it is usually advised for them not to fast. These restrictions might also include pregnant and lactating women and many other health conditions that may become harmful if fasting is followed.”

Among those also restricted from fasting are young children, the elderly or frail and those with chronic conditions. But with guidance from a doctor, it can be possible to follow a modified fasting pattern.

“If you have health issues that may be affected by fasting, then you really need to speak to your physician on their recommendations for how to proceed,” explains Shukri Farah, a clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital. “The doctor will be able to help you adjust your medication dosages or fasting hours as necessary, or they may advise you against it.”

For those who are able to fast, the holy month can bring about some unexpected benefits and improve overall physical health.

“Fasting can be beneficial,” Shukri acknowledges. “As long as you follow a balanced diet during Ramadan then you may end up losing weight. Many people do also see improvements in their blood sugar due to the change in regimen.

Sara agrees: “If you maintain healthy practices during the month, such as exercising and not over-eating, you may also be able to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.”

A balanced table

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When sunset comes and it’s time to break the fast, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the sights and smells from the kitchen or iftar hall. But after 12 hours of abstaining from all food and drink, Sara warns that you need to be gentle on your empty stomach with quick, easily digestible fuel rather than hitting the buffet too hard.

“It’s customary to start with three dates like the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH),” she notes. “Dates contain sugar and fibre, as well as potassium and magnesium.”

After initially breaking your fast, it’s time for the main meal and as long as you follow a basic rule of thumb, you should avoid some common pitfalls.

“You should start with soup because it contains minerals and fibre and is gentle and warm for the stomach,” Shukri advises. “After that, you should eat normally. Your plate should cover all food groups; include vegetables, fruit, grains and carbohydrates and protein.

“Something ideal would be a big plate of salad with some protein, like chicken or fish. You can also take some carbohydrates like rice or pasta, but go for wholegrains as they take longer to digest.”

With delicious food on the buffet, it can be tempting to over-indulge on treats, but be careful you don’t overload your system, warns Shukri: “We recommend that the food is lighter. Don’t go for fatty, fried or salty options. Your body responds to what you put in it, and dumping that in all at once can be disastrous. You may end up with heartburn, stomach pain, indigestion or diarrhoea and feel very uncomfortable.”

Sara agrees, noting that savouring your food is the best remedy for over-eating: “You need to eat slowly and chew properly. Your brain takes 20 minutes to transmit the message to your body that you are full, so it’s always better to start with fibrous foods like soup or salad. A balanced plate with complex carbohydrates, protein and vegetables alongside adequate water will help fuel your fasting hours.”

While balancing your plate is one half of the equation at iftar time, as temperatures soar in the desert, you also need to remember to stay hydrated.

“If you don’t take in adequate fluids, you are at risk of dehydration,” Sara says. “You
need to drink eight cups of water at a minimum, and you can also eat foods with a high water content, like watermelon or salad. Soup is also a great option for rehydration during your iftar meal. Avoid caffeinated beverages – that includes soda – because they will increase urination.”

Staying fit

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After a big meal and a long day of abstinence, it can be tempting to sit down and take a nap, but maintaining your fitness routine is critical.

“You definitely should be exercising during Ramadan, but you need to make sure it is not too strenuous or difficult to the extent that you lose water or salt,” Shukri observes. “We recommend walking for no longer than 30 minutes and intensive exercise, weight training or high intensity interval training (HIIT) should be avoided when you’re fasting.

“If you do want to go to the gym after iftar, make sure you go two to three hours after you have eaten as long as your meal has not been too heavy,” she adds.

For Sara, Ramadan is a good excuse to enjoy gentle exercise, but recommends that whether you’re a fitness buff or not, you modify your routine: “Some people can be quite sedentary during Ramadan and they do not do enough activity. Before iftar, we recommend activities such as walking, stretching, yoga or light jogging. You can increase the intensity by changing your walking speed.

“When your body has digested the food properly, you can try some different forms of exercise, but be sure to stay hydrated and don’t become exhausted.”

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