Healthy Eating During RamadanJessica Malone
Though it may be observed slightly differently across the world, Ramadan is significant to Muslims in many ways. For most, it is a time for religious observance, self-reflection, service to others, communal and familial unity, and more, but Ramadan can also be a great opportunity to honor one’s body and wellbeing.
By eating healthfully, keeping active, and living a balanced lifestyle, the holy month can also serve as a wonderful time to practice or maintain one’s best health.
The Benefits of Fasting During Ramadan
Likely the most anticipated feature of Ramadan is the aspect of fasting. With a typical fast lasting around 14-16 hours, or from sunrise to sunset, it is not an easy feat. But what good news is it that this traditional observance can be used to promote better health!
The body is a beautiful, self-regulating machine capable of adapting to numerous physical states. And this, of course, includes the fasted state. During times of withholding food intake, the body begins to adapt in several ways to facilitate its normal functions. With an initial lack of glucose (around four hours after a meal for most of us) the body will switch over to metabolizing stored glucose.
If continuing to restrict food intake, like in a fast, the body will eventually deplete glucose stores and must utilize even more sources of energy. Typically, we see the metabolism of adipose tissue, or stored fat. Exactly when this metabolic switch to adipose tissue occurs is hard to say. It will depend on the body composition of each person, their fitness level, energy expenditure, what they have eaten previously, as well as and many other factors.
Anywhere from 12-36 hours of fasting is thought to bring about the biggest metabolic switch to adipose tissue and other sources of energy in the body (1). At the stage, it is thought that the body has metabolized significant adipose tissue that it must now generate a compound called ketones, from all the byproducts. Ketones, or ketone bodies as they are also referred to, are unique molecules that the brain and skeletal muscles can use for energy, in order to preserve other body tissues from being broken down as the body would normally do in a starvation state.
However, in a typical Ramadan day of fasting, only minimal ketone production will occur within most individuals who consume regular iftar and suhoor. Still, Ramadan fasting has many physiologic similarities to intermittent fasting where most of this talk about the effect of ketones originated in the past few decades of research.
Though we don’t fully understand all implications of intermittent fasting on the body, there is evidence to support fasting can be beneficial toward accelerated weight loss, reduced insulin resistance, improved blood lipid profiles, lowered blood pressure, and reduced markers of systemic inflammation (1,2).
Whether weight loss or general health are your personal goals, fasting during Ramadan can be a great way to achieve both. As long as careful consideration to a healthy Ramadan diet is maintained.
Ramadan Eating Plan
As with all diets, balance is the key. And for a sustainable, healthy lifestyle, it is best to consider your “diet” to mean what you consume on a daily basis, and not on a short term, regimented plan to achieve some physical goal. With this mindset, a healthy Ramadan diet is absolutely achievable.
In a healthy Ramadan meal plan, it is most beneficial to avoid high fat, salt, and sugar foods, and focus on three categories of food, instead: protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates.
Protein is a crucial nutrient that makes up the body’s tissues, enzymes, antibodies, and hormones. It is helps to promote greater satiety because it takes longer to digest. Aim for approximately 1/4 serving on your plate of a whole protein. Healthy sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and plant-based protein sources, like legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.
Fat is a heavily stigmatized nutrient, but it is vital to the body’s organs, hormone production, nerve cells, and much more. It also is very calorically dense, which can promote greater satiety as well. The key is to consume more unsaturated fat (plant-based sources) than saturated fat (animal-based sources). Healthy sources of fat include: avocado, olives, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and extra virgin olive oil. Fats should compromise approximately a 1/8 serving on your plate.
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of energy and micronutrients. They should comprise any remaining space on your plate and consist of a mixture of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.
It can be hard to visualize what an entire meal of these three categories will look like on a plate. But keep in mind, we tend to incorporate all three categories of food into one dish. So it is up to you to portion your servings accordingly. When in doubt, you can probably amp up your fruit and vegetable intake with a side salad or piece of fruit.
If strictly observing Ramadan and abstaining from all drink during daylight hours, it is very important to consider how you will be consuming enough water around the fast. Water is a vital nutrient to the body as it helps facilitate metabolism, makes up our blood, regulates body temperature, and flushes out waste.
It is recommended that the average person consume between 2-3 liters of water a day to maintain these functions, but it’s important to note that we lose a lot water throughout the day in our breath, sweat, and urine.
The body is ultra-smart, though; Just as it can adapt to periods of restricted food intake, it can also adapt to restricted water intake, for a period of time. During a fast, the kidneys will retain water and produce less urine. You may experience reduced trips to the bathroom, but do be aware of the typical signs of dehydration: dizziness, headache, and fatigue. Hydrate accordingly.
In order to avoid dehydration, consume plenty of water and water-rich foods around your fast. Some examples include: tea, milk, yogurt, soups, stews, fruit, and vegetables. Just be sure to avoid beverages with caffeine or added sugar, and foods with a high salt content, that can otherwise cause your body to expel more water.
Setting Your Intention for a Healthy Ramadan
In celebrating Ramadan, it can be easy and tempting to indulge in all your favorite holiday foods. Especially when these foods feel well deserved after fasting each day of the holy month. With this mindset, it is also just as easy to let ideas of balance and moderation go out the window. This is why we commonly see weight gain through Ramadan.
Setting an intention at the start of Ramadan to commit to maintaining your health will help you stave off unnecessary weight gain, while enjoying your festivities.Depending on what works for you, there are a variety of ways to commit to your health during Ramadan. Planning to eat well-balanced meals, exercising, getting enough sleep, and keeping up your hydration are key areas of focus for you health. Even while fasting, taking time to savor and enjoy meal time can make all the difference. As well as remembering that the more you don’t eat at one sitting, the more leftover food there is for your next meal!
By: Jessica Malone, MS, CN
- Anton SD, Moehl K, Donahoo WT, et al. Flipping the Metabolic Switch: Understanding and Applying the Health Benefits of Fasting. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2018;26(2):254-268. doi:10.1002/oby.22065
- Cho Y, Hong N, Kim KW, et al. The Effectiveness of Intermittent Fasting to Reduce Body Mass Index and Glucose Metabolism: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Med. 2019;8(10):1645. Published 2019 Oct 9. doi:10.3390/jcm8101645