The spiritual blessings of Ramazan are manifold but when done right, the holy month of fasting also comes with tangible physical benefits. Combining healthy food choices with fasting resets your metabolism and can help you shed a few pounds and lower your cholesterol.
Ramazan shouldn’t be the season of pakoras, parathas and all-you-can-eat buffet iftars. Those afternoon naps are certainly not going to help you burn off the nightly half-kilo of jalebis. Fasting is not a license to eat with abandon, and nor should it be according to Sunnah.
The blessed Prophet (PBUH) said, “The children of Adam fill no vessel worse than their stomach. Sufficient for him is a few morsels to keep his back straight. If he must eat more, then a third should be for his food, a third for his drink, and a third left for air.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhî)
There’s no need to sink into a food coma after every iftar or slosh to bed after drinking litres of fluid at sehri – only to spend the next two hours peeing it all out. And healthy eating in Ramazan doesn’t have to mean boring, bland, unfamiliar “diet food” either. Quinoa for sehri or grilled salmon at iftar will make fasting seem like a penance instead of a blessing if those are not the sort of foods you’d eat anyway. It’s perfectly possible to incorporate your favourite Ramazan treats and the sort of food you would normally eat into a sensible, nutritious eating plan.
Here are 5 golden rules of healthy eating in Ramazan:
1) Stagger your hydration
Dehydration is the toughest part of fasting, especially in summer, but loading up on water at sehri isn’t the best plan. Filling your stomach like a water balloon results in one of two things – throwing up or multiple visits to the loo.
It’s far smarter to stagger your hydration through the night. Start with two glasses of water at iftar, and follow with a glass every hour till bedtime. By the time you sleep, you will have had 6 glasses of water. Aim for a manageable two glasses at sehri and you’ve had 8 glasses in the day, which is usually sufficient.
Do stay out of the sun to minimise moisture loss through sweating. Remember tea and coffee are dehydrating and shouldn’t be counted in your fluid intake.
2) Avoid sugar, like it's the mother of all evils
We all crave something sweet when we open our rozas but sugar results in highs and lows that leaves you with more cravings and thus messes up your metabolism. Sugar gives you empty calories without nutritional benefits and is key in Ramazan over-eating.
Totally giving up sugar may be a stretch but limiting it is essential.
Stay away from those giant special-offer bottles of Coke or Pepsi. If you’re like me and Ramazan wouldn’t be the same without Rooh Afzah, gradually reduce the amount you use to limit the sugar hit.
Load up on fruit before letting yourself touch any mithai or chocolate. Use grapes in your fruit chaat for sweetness and stay away from the sugar jar. Switch your Gulab Jamun for Ras Malai, which has more milk and less sugar.
3) Have all things in moderation
If you really must have parathas and pakoras, limit them to a once-a-week treat rather than a daily indulgence. Instead of pakoras at Iftar, try a healthy channa chaat with loads of veggies and spices or dahi vaday which are much less oily. Try baked samosas instead of fried ones or little grilled chicken shashliks instead of pakoras.
Keep choice to a minimum to help avoid over-eating. Accompany your dates with one snack item at iftar and then eat a simple evening meal, with one meat dish and one vegetable dish or salad accompanied by rice or roti.
For Sehri, parathas are a poor choice in any case and likely to cause heartburn. Full of processed flour and fat, they lead to lethargy rather than providing a slow release of energy to keep you going through the day. Aim instead for complex carbs in your morning meal – wholemeal roti, bajray ki roti, daal, sujji (semolina) or oatmeal (dalia). Eggs are great if cooked in very little oil but add more protein in the form of milk, yoghurt and nuts to your morning meal.
By all means, indulge in your Ramazan favourites but limit unhealthy food to bite-size portions that you savour rather than platefuls that you wolf down. And beware of the buffet Iftar as the Qur’an is categorical on waste:
“Eat and drink freely: but waste not by excess, for He does not like the wasters.” (Chapter 7, verse 31)
4) Befriend fibre
With mealtimes askew and without that morning hit of caffeine, constipation becomes a major issue for many – with attendant gas making things even worse.
Add fibre to your diet to keep your gut moving. Fresh fruit and veggies are ideal, especially pears, but sprinkle wheatbran on your cereal or eat a couple of dried prunes every night to up your fibre intake.
5) Save the oil for your hair
Good fats in moderation are an essential part of a balanced diet but we tend to have too much oil in our diets as a nation. Those super-sized cans of oil that fill the advertising slots every Ramazan? All they do is fill the brands' coffers and our hips and arteries!
Decant your oil into small bottles and keep an eye on how much you use. Save fried food for special occasions and bake or grill your food when you can. Grilled kebabs, baked filo pastries and baked samosas are all delicious and use a lot less oil. As for the carts of samosas and pakoras on every street-corner, give them a miss - chances are the oil has been re-fried to toxicity.
Changing the way we eat in Ramazan takes small changes that have a huge impact. For example, we only serve pakoras once in a while in our house and try to keep our iftar meal as close to a usual evening meal as possible. Sehri is full of dairy, complex carbs and fruit. I’ve found over the years that, Masha’Allah, I lose weight every Ramazan. The only year I didn’t fast, I put on ten pounds over the course of the year, which compounded my belief that fasting resets your metabolism. Last year, I combined fasting with daily walks and bloodwork at the end of the month showed a 20% decrease in my blood cholesterol.
Not adding too many ‘special’ time-consuming foods to your meals in Ramazan has another benefit too. It frees up the people (usually women) preparing the food, giving them more time for prayer and spiritual matters. And after all, that’s what Ramazan is really about. Ramazan Mubarak - May this Ramazan be full of blessings for us all.