Health & Spiritual Benefits of Ramadan Combined with Nutrition
What is Ramadan?
It is a spiritual retreat for the Muslims to get closer to their Creator. For 30 days (month of Ramadan) to reconnect with their religion and family while abstaining from food, water and worldly desires from sunrise till sunset. The physical aspect of fasting makes you realize about thirst and hunger. And the spiritual aspect is your mind (heart and brain) dedicated to Allah, helps you abstain from food and water. For some people fasting can be easier than others, even so the mind is in control.
Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan?
- Allah has prescribed fasting for us stating there are amazing benefits to fasting.
- Fasting is observed in order to develop a higher consciousness and mindfulness of Allah – the creator.
- In order to develop the urge to self protect from sins and errors, from disappointing Allah and the messenger of Allah.
- Purification of the self of all ill habits. Let go of the bad ones and learn a few new ones.
- To learn self discipline and self control
- To read and study the Quran in order to better understand the purpose of life on earth.
What Allah Says in the Quran about Ramadan:
Ramadan or fasting is mentioned in Surah – Baqarah in Ayats 183 – 185.
- O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous –
- [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.
- The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.
Islamic Take on Fasting Beyond Ramadan:
Fasting once a year during the entire month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims must practice. Additionally, it is highly recommended to fast on Mondays and Thursdays and on the 13-15th of every month. Fasting in Islam is always intended as a form of “Ibadat” (worship) in Islam to get closer to Allah. And Allah said in the Quran (2:184) “And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.” Which means there are many other health benefits to fasting.
The Physiology of Fasting:
The human body is run by glucose, proteins and fats (lipids). Of the three fuels the essential one is glucose which means the body (especially the brain) requires it to normally function. Usually after a long day of fasting, the glucose supply would be running low and the body will seek glucose from the protein and fats. After 24 hours of fast, glycogen store is depleted, forcing the body to utilize energy store from the adipose tissues and protein store. The body draws a substitute of glucose from its existing fat storage, also known as ketone bodies. Ketones are primary food supply for the brain.
Intermittent Fasting VS Ramadan Fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a way of eating that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It also does not specify exact hours for fasting but the fasting method requires anywhere from 12 to 16 hour daily fasting or fasting for 24 hours, twice per week. One can drink water, coffee/tea or take supplements during the fasting hours. Unless someone is doing dry fasting.
Ramadan, on the other hand is a religious observation that directs one to fast between sunrise to sunset for holy month of Ramadan (29-30 days) without any food or drinks. This is a dry fast and the hours depend on sunrise and sunset in the area that you reside in. Muslims all over the world practice eating Halal foods during and after Ramadan. It doesn’t specify which foods (halal) one should eat but rather when you should eat them. However, the purpose of Ramadan is not to overload.
Physiological Benefits of Fasting
There used to be a lot of negative stigma associated with “fasting” before. When I used to fast for Ramadan, I constantly heard how hard this practice is. However, today there are people who do 24 to 72 hours of fasting. Dr. Jason Fung’s book changed many people’s opinion as he popularized fasting and healthy eating for weight loss. And weight loss occurs as there are many changes happening in the body. An important one is the liver is free to transform protein and lipids into dominant fuel for the body. The most sustainable way Intermittent fasting is being promoted is to do a 16:8 fasting regularly (fasting 16 hours and having 8 hours to eat), once a week fasting or 2 non-consecutive day of fasting (5:2 diet). Note, that the followers of Islam are also encouraged to fast two days a week, mostly Mondays and Thursdays, beyond Ramadan.
Fasting triggers the endocrine system to make shifts. The hormones mobilize the body’s reserves as well as have an anti-inflammatory effect. Hence the body seeks balance through self-regulatory mechanisms and produce therapeutic effects.
Many aspects of blood composition improve such as, levels of glucose, insulin, cholesterol and triglycerides. Triglycerides are detached into free fatty acids and glycerol. The liver then respectively converts them into ketone bodies and glucose.
Breathing and heart beat slow down and blood pressure lowers. The digestive system also gets some rest.
Animal study shows intermittent fasting can delay the progression of neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease.
Summarizing Fasting Benefits combined with Nutritious Diet
- Fasting boosts the metabolism
- Increases the chances of fat/weight loss
- Balances blood sugar and ensure better insulin sensitivity
- Lowers high cholesterol and triglycerides
- Lowers high blood pressure
- Since the liver is not using its capacity to help the body to digest the food, it is free to conduct other functionalities to keep the body strong.
- Fasting and nutritious foods can improve the health of our skin provided
- Fasting improves the immune system by reducing inflammatory cytokines in the body (chemical messages that communicated between our immune cells; some cause inflammation in the body). It also increases macrophages (a cell that attacks and consumes harmful microbes).
- May promote longevity as one’s immune system is strong as well as fasting favours the growth of “good gut bacteria”, also known as probiotics.
- Fasting and nutrition combined together are anti aging.
- Fasting and alkalizing diet (more vegetables and small number of fresh fruits) can decrease inflammation, promote fat loss and trigger ketones (when on a low carb diet).
- Improve better cellular health.
- Enhances brain capacity and function.
- Improves the body’s stress response and prevent DNA damage.
- Quickens recovery from injury.
- Fasting reduces oxidative stress.
- Short day fasts improve overall energy and stamina.
- Research is going on how fasting can help fight cancer and tumor growths through autophagy.
Sustainable Fasting Methods During and After Ramadan
Given all the above benefits one can consider a more sustainable way to use intermittent fasting is by stop snacking altogether. Meaning eat 2 or 3 meals a day without snacking in between. This would provide increased energy during Ramadan if combined with healthy eating. Unfortunately, usually during Ramadan many culture and social practice promotes eating throughout the night or promotes large amount of food for snacking at the break of the fast, including “high sugar” juices or Sherbet’s. Deep fried foods, lots of processed foods, rich foods and juices can create a huge burden on our pancreas, liver and the digestive system. When our organs are provided with large quantities of unhealthy foods after a long day of fast, we barely have any fuel to pray at night or wake up for the Sahor/Sehri at night. Our body needs the energy from the food we eat, however we focus more on food and less on our ability to perform more prayers after fasting.
After Ramadan, practicing intermittent fasting would be a great kick start even for those who consider fasting after Ramadan. One must know their body’s limit of fasting. Ramadan makes use fast between sunrise to sunset which could be anywhere from 12-18 hours in most places in the world. These hours can be reached if you do not have a serious health condition and if you are not 60 plus, underweight or under 14 years of age. During summer people in warmer climates may find it challenging.
Tips on Making Fasts Work for You during Ramadan
- Ensure insulin levels do not spike when breaking fast. Therefore, no fruits juices, Sherbets or other liquids that contain sugar or fructose or high fructose corn syrup (mostly in canned soda or pops)
- Eat carbohydrate rich foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients. Be aware of the type of carbohydrate you are choosing to consume. This will provide energy for the night “salat’s” or “prayers.” Lentil soups, cauliflower soups etc. will provide benefit. However, grain based meals with lot of rice or wheat will cause digestive distress.
- Ensure easy to digest food combination and eat fluids/liquids away from meals. Break fast with warm water or warm lemon water and a date, then say your prayer first followed by consuming your iftar or meal. After finishing the meal, spend time cleaning up or in dikir and then consume more water. Drinking water throughout your meals will not be good for digestion.
- For electrolyte balance you can have warm water with a squeeze or lemon/lime and a pinch of sea or Himalayan pink salt.
- Eat small amounts of probiotic rich foods such as, yogurt, sauerkraut or kimchi, small amount of protein (5-6 oz.) such as, red meat, chicken, fish or lentils/beans and small amount of fats such as, nuts and seeds or avocado.
Current Phenomenon: Food Availability, Unhealthy Diet & Reduced Fasting:
Many of us enjoy three meals each day plus snacking. Additionally, we have well stocked fridge, freezer and pantry which is a historical anomaly. The packaged food section in grocery stores contains many varieties of preserved dry foods can has long best before dates. There are restaurants, dessert & coffee shops for social gatherings and smart phone Apps that ensure constant supply of food. Our bodies are not used to fasting any more and mostly in a state of constant feeding. The organs such as liver, pancreas and GI are over worked. Lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia and depression can be combated with fasting and good diet.
Physiological impact of Overeating Unhealthy Foods
- The body’s metabolic process will be overstressed to ensure it gets rid of excess food.
- Excess food that is not metabolized will be stored in the body as fat.
- The body’s hormones such as insulin, production will be in excess to process sugar load and reduce in the blood stream. “Sugar” means foods that break down into sugar such as, carbohydrates, fruits and regular sugar.
- The brain triggers the body to stop producing insulin after sugar is removed from the blood stream. Often times low blood sugar occurs as too much sugar is removed from the blood. Low blood sugar then causes dizziness, fatigue, nausea and even depression. And most commonly this phenomenon is dealt by eating again to stabilize the blood sugar. Eating again will start insulin production. Hence, becomes a vicious cycle.
- Food impacts the brain hence our mood. Excessive eating can trigger overproduction of dopamine and opioid release in the brain. Overtime the body will associate these pleasure sensations with eating these unhealthy foods.
- Combining cold liquids with deep fried food and overeating after breaking the fast will trigger food to leave the stomach too early before breaking is down properly.
- Spicy, fatty and carbohydrate rich foods may cause indigestion, gas and bloating. Combining liquids while eating large meals will do the same.
- As the body’s organs (GI, Liver, Pancreas, Brain etc.) get busy digesting food symptoms like fatigue, sleepiness, sluggishness, rapid heart rate and headaches will follow.
- Consistent overeating or eating unhealthy foods consistently (even with fasting in between) will cause various lifestyle diseases and impact the digestive and hormonal system of the body.
Ayurvedic Tips that can be used during Ramadan
- Ayurveda discourages eating excessive amounts of garlic and onion with meals, as they are heating in quality and lead to “tamas” or lethargy. Lethargy will negate the intention of night prayers.
- When drinking dairy milk and yogurt, ensure not to mix fruits or meat or wheat-based items (such as bread). Combining dairy with the above will lead to indigestions and gas. Milk and banana are not a great food combination. However, one exception is date and milk which can be consumed together.
- Eat fruits away from other meals or keep a gap between fruits and rest of the meal.
- Grain based foods that are heavy and high in sugar such as, rice and bread eaten with fruits are also not ideal for digestion.
- When eating eggs do not combine with dairy based products, beans, fruits or grain heavy meals.
Calories during Ramadan:
Globally many societies consume excessive calories during Ramadan and end up gaining weight than loosing weight. This weight gain in no mean is healthy. Therefore, understanding caloric intake during Ramadan is utmost important.
I am taking example of eating pattern I have witnessed during Ramadan and based on this I have provided an estimation of caloric intake during Ramadan. This is based on mostly South East Asians and their food habits.
During Sehri or Sohoor if one is consuming heavy, thinking it will keep them fuller throughout the day then it is a grave error. Heavy food will make the body sluggish, drain blood supply from the brain and make you hungry just in few hours. A grain-based meal with curry/salan/gravy-based dish can easily be 800-900 calories. A glass of dairy milk or tea/coffee (with added sugar or dairy) will add another 100-120 calories and dessert can add up to 250-300 calories. Since, at sohoor some of us are still sleepy or after a large iftar it is hard eat too much, people still end up eating anywhere from 1000 to 1300 calories, depending on age, gender, physical structure and appetite.
During Iftar “sherbat’s” or sugary drinks can add 200 calories, deep fried snack can add up to 700 calories, beans such as, chickpeas, black chick peas can add another 200 calories, desserts up to 200 calories and hot beverages with sugar and milk up to another 100 calories. This is 1200 calories ONLY for snacking which people call “iftar”. Many have a complete dinner afterwards which would around another 500-700 calories.
Food waste and spoilage are common add on with over consumption.
Ideal Meal Planning for Ramadan
If you want to stay healthy and focus on prayers/reading the Quran as well as balance your work or home management you must plan meals differently.
Suhoor Foods: Start with a glass of cardamom or cinnamon or lemon infused water. This can be prepared the night before.
- Oatmeal with nut, seeds and dried or fresh berries. I highly recommend drinking a nut or seed-based milk instead of dairy for Kapha doshas. Overnight oat can be pre made and instantly eaten upon waking up. Or,
- Bone broth (poultry or beef/lamb/goat) with small amounts of noodles and lots of veggies. Or,
- Vegetable based soups such as squash, sweet potato, cauliflower, broccoli etc. and a bowl of salad and a flaxseed cracker. Or,
- Plain whole wheat roti with meat/fish/bean based curry and salad.
- People on a grain free/Paleo/Anti-inflammatory diet can eat – bone broth with grain free noodles and meat/fish/tofu or steam mixed vegetables with avocado and meat/fish/tofu.
Note: Add Kimchi or Sauerkraut to the meal or for Vata Dosha add a tablespoon of yogurt. Fermented foods or probiotics will be very useful for the digestive health. Fiber rich foods are also beneficial for these probiotics.
Grains and beans are heavy and hard to digest, therefore consuming small quantities is better.
Drink green or herbal tea 10 minutes after with a fruit if possible. If not ensure a minimum of 3-4 cups of water.
No more than a total of 700-800 calories can be consumed if on a weight loss diet. Men may need close to a 1000 calories or people who are working out may need more calories. Consult a dietician or a nutritionist who can meal plan for you. If you are on medication or have a specific chronic condition please speak with your medical practitioner before making any calorie restrictive changes,
Iftar Foods: Break fast or open iftar with electrolyte drink (warm lemon water with a pinch of salt) and a small bowl of fresh pomegranate or berries or grape (120 – 150 calories approximately). Afterwards go for Maghrib prayer and come back to one main meal. Soak chia or flax seeds in water in the morning and by Iftar it will be a gel like consistency.
- A cup of rice (206 calories) with vegetable, meat or fish curry (250-300 calories) and a fresh bowl of salad (approximately 50-60 calories). A date (25 calories) and a cup of green or any other herbal tea. Paneer based food is ok for Vata and Pitta dosha people but not for Kaphas who are usually overweight. Or,
- 2 rotis (chapati, preferably whole wheat or with spelt flour – 140-160 calories) with 2 pieces kababs or a choice of protein (4-5 ounces or up to 300 calories) and bowl of fresh salad. Add 50 grams of mango/apple/pear (30 calories) and a cup of green or other herbal tea. Or,
- A cup and half of mixed roasted vegetables with 1 teaspoon of olive oil with grilled chicken/fish/meat (4-5 oz.) and ½ cup of brown rice or quinoa, A small bowl of berries and tea after meal.
- People on a grain free/Paleo/Anti-inflammatory diet can eat: Cauliflower rice with meat/fish/tofu curry or a bowl of grilled vegetables with a choice of protein. A bowl of leafy green salad with a choice of protein and nuts/seeds can also be tried,
The above is 500-700 calories excluding the first bowl of fruit you had before Maghrib prayer.
Cautious During the Ramadan Fasting
To avoid dehydration, ensure 3-4 cups of plain water at Sehri and at Iftar. To combat excessive thirst throughout the day ensure you eat cooling foods such as coconut water, watermelon, mint, cucumber etc. Ensure less spice foods as they cause the body to warm up and sweat, hence the body further lose water.
Many get headaches during fasting hours – this could be due to excessive eating, consuming sugar in forms of grains, fruit juices or high carbohydrate rich foods and consuming deep-fried foods. In some women headaches can also be due to excessive sugar and dairy consumption. Breathing exercise, neck-shoulder exercise and less dependency on caffeine can reduce occurrence of headaches.
People with diabetes must speak with their primary health care practitioner and monitor their blood sugar. They must avoid refined sugar, sweets, desserts, baked goods, high carbohydrate meals and juices at all cost.
Some may also experience heart burn which is usually due to deep fried food or due to overeating. Drink water with freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice before meals. Other remedies used are apple cider vinegar (start with 1 tsp.) in water, mint tea or fennel seed tea.
Correct Way of Eating (breaking Fast) during Ramadan:
If Allah has asked us to fast by abstaining from both water and food from sunrise to sunset, then we must also continue our practice with mindful and conscious consumption of food and liquid beverages,
During Suhoor or Sehri it is best to have a light meal so less energy is spent on digesting and making insulin and more can be spend on prayers and dikr. Also, a heavy meal will also promote more hunger during the midday due to low blood sugar.
In order to perform Tarawih or Tahajjud prayers (not by sacrificing the five fard prayers) one needs more energy therefore; it is highly recommended to eat foods can be easily digested by your body. Cooked vegetables, small amounts of grains/beans/lentils and small amount of lean protein will be very helpful.
In order to increase reading capacity or to improve memorizing (verses from Quran and Duas) drink herbal teas such as rosemary and sage, fresh fruits and omega 3 rich foods.
Heavy or rich foods, deep fried foods, sweets and processed foods will cause gas and burping. Spicy foods and gravy laden foods will cause sweating. There are also foods that can cause poor oral and body odor such as garlic and onions. These foods are detrimental to your digestive health, especially in empty stomach.
The Sunnah of Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W) teaches us to drink water, eat dates, yogurt and small piece of bread. The Quran also mentions foods such as honey, milk, pomegranate, dates and olives.
Interesting Facts: Animals and Fasting
The penguins in the Antarctica continent are fascinating birds. The male Emperor penguin fasts spontaneously in his colony on the ice. They can go up to four months without food. Camels store lipids on their humps and can go without eating for two months. Bears and White Shark can go without food for 3 months. Humpback Whale and Python can go up to 6 months. Of course, these are just interesting data that exist in the nature. In comparison a young adult human (5’6” tall) weighing 70 kilograms will have 15 kilograms of fat reserve which can be enough to keep going for a month without food.
Fasting during Ramadan is to achieve a higher consciousness, connect to the Creator, offer more Ibadat and bring discipline to our lives. We cannot defeat the purpose of Ramadan by making it all about the food during Iftar. When we practice fasting and discipline, we can achieve the pleasure of Allah. Therefore, eating wisely will only contribute towards our Ibadat and our health.