Ramadan and fasting: An opportunity to improve health

theGRIO REPORT - Many religions call for it when there’s a need to reinforce spiritual discipline or put a situation under concentrated prayer...

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Fasting — refusing food and sometimes drink for a specified period of time — is not a new phenomenon.

Many religions call for it when there’s a need to reinforce spiritual discipline or put a situation under concentrated prayer. Some people like to fast in the spring and fall, to promote weight loss or just as a way of “cleansing” and preparing for a new season.

Fasting during Ramadan

Muslims around the world are in the midst of a 30-day fast for Ramadan. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of more than 38,000 Muslims from 39 countries, 93 percent say they fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

As one of the five pillars, or core rituals of Islamic faith, fasting during Ramadan is mandatory for all healthy adult Muslims. “Children who have not hit puberty, anyone who is sick or needs medication throughout the day, pregnant, nursing or menstruating women are exempt,” says Sara Elnakib, RD, MPH, co-founder of Muslims in Dietetics and Nutrition (MIDAN), a member interest group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Travelers and the elderly who may find it hard to fast are also exempt,” she adds.

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During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from all food or drink — including water, chewing gum, the use of oral medications, and smoking from dawn to sunset. Ramadan, like so many other religious fast provides an opportunity for spiritual and physical renewal.

“Ramadan provides a fresh start for Muslims,” says Elnakib, “it provides us with the opportunity to change our bad habits, including many poor health habits.” Some Muslims may also use Ramadan as a chance to stop smoking, since they cannot smoke while fasting.

During Ramadan most Muslims eat at least two meals: a pre-fast meal known as suhur and then a sunset meal — iftar.

The classic Egyptian pre-fast meal — Ful Medames — consists of fava beans with tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil, and a tiny bit of hot peppers. Elnakib makes protein and vegetables the focal point of her pre-fast meals.

“The protein keeps me feeling full longer and the vegetables provide my body with hydration as they break down.” For many Muslims suhur resembles a breakfast meal.  An omelet with spinach, olives and peppers is one example.  Elnakib’s favorite pre-fast meal consists of mini baby bell cheese wheels with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, sprinkled with salt and cumin.

Almost all Muslims around the world break their fast with dates and water or dates and milk.

“This tradition is said to impart wisdom; the fluid provides your body with the much needed hydration from the long hours of fasting and the dates provide your body with the electrolyte balance it needs with lots of Zinc, Calcium, Iron and Potassium,” Says Elnakib.

Fasting for weight loss or cleansing

Many people think fasting is the fast track to everlasting weight loss.

“It’s not!” says Elisa Zied, registered dietitian, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. “While fasting can contribute to a lower calorie intake, it can also leave you feeling sapped of energy.”

That’s because you’re not giving your body enough calories nor are you giving yourself an appropriate mix of nutrients for normal functioning.  Rapid weight loss promotes muscle loss and feeds the cycle of “yo-yo” dieting.

Fasting is often touted as a means of “cleaning out” the system, removing toxic wastes. But the opposite is true. Depriving the body of calories and sufficient amounts of carbohydrate through fasting, leads to a condition called ketosis — a buildup of chemicals in the blood called ketones.

Ketosis can cause weakness, nausea, dehydration, light-headedness and irritability. Zied suggest sticking to the tried and true to achieve safe, sensible and sustainable long-term weight loss.

“Load up on produce, whole grains and lean sources of protein and reduce portions, especially of high-calorie foods.”

Nutrition tips for fasting in general

“Many Muslims try to use Ramadan as a boost to their weight loss efforts, by eating healthy during the non-fasting hours and avoiding non-nutritious meals,” says Elnakib who offers the following tips to her clients:

  • Avoid drinks high in sugar during non-fasting hours and make water the primary beverage.
  • Do not binge when you resume eating (for Muslims at suhur or iftar). After the first few days of fasting, the metabolism starts slowing down to compensate for the lack of energy, so you should not over eat thinking that your body needs extra calories.
  • Load up on fruits and vegetables — they are low calorie and nutrient rich. They are composed of 70 percent water and provide a critical source of hydration, especially during these long summer days, filled with excessive heat.  (See Frequently Asked Questions About Extreme Heat)
  • Be sure to include protein at the suhur and iftar meals. Protein takes longer to digest and will keep you feeling full longer.

“Finally, even though Ramadan is a very festive time and our traditions call for us to have very delicious sweets and desserts, try to limit them to one piece per day since they are “empty” calories,” says Elnakib.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully