Fasting has many benefits but be sure you are practising properly to make the most of it.
While fasting is not simply about refraining from food and drink, this is a large part of Ramadan.
Fasting has several health benefits, including reducing inflammation, detoxifying the body and reducing plaque in the arteries. But with the numerous lavish iftars around town and the sluggishness you may feel after a day of fasting, it’s easy to fall victim to bad habits.
If you’re new to fasting, you may be giving it a try to see how your Muslim colleagues and friends feel, or perhaps you fast every year and want to make sure you have a healthy Ramadan. Regardless of your intentions, it’s important to know what to expect and how to adapt.
Before you begin
It’s important to keep your health in mind and consult your doctor before you begin fasting as any pre-existing conditions may put you at risk.
“Despite the long list of possible health benefits associated with fasting, it may not be right for everyone,” explains Cecilia Ayoub, a certified functional medicine coach and nutrition consultant.
“Always practice bio-individuality, an approach that recognises each individual’s body is a unique ecosystem and will respond differently to various dietary approaches.”
While some people may insist on fasting, it is usually not recommended without medical supervision for old adults, young children, people who are underweight, those with chronic diseases, people with type 1 diabetes, people on dialysis and pregnant women with gestational diabetes.
“A pregnant woman needs to ask her doctor if she is eligible for fasting,” adds Dr Ban Al Chalabi, specialist, obstetrics and gynaecology at Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women and Children.
“Many pregnant women who have medical problems such as hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems or heart disease need to have regular doses of medication during the day, which wouldn’t allow them to fast.
“Regarding breastfeeding mothers, fasting won’t affect the milk production as long as you drink and eat well, and the baby is older than six weeks.”
For diabetic patients, fasting could lead to spikes and plunges in blood glucose as well as thrombosis, which can leave you prone to blood clots. If you are on medication, it’s important to check with your doctor to see how you can modify this during the fast.
“Remember, fasting is not intended to create excessive hardship, and some individuals are therefore exempted from fasting regardless of their religion,” explains Dr Huda Ezzeddin, consultant, endocrinology and diabetology, HealthPlus Diabetes & Endocrinology Center.
“For people who still insist on fasting despite having chronic illnesses, healthcare providers can recommend modifications to their diet as well as medication in a way that they can continue their fast.”
Breaking the fast
After a day of abstaining from food and drink, you may feel famished and be tempted to dig into sweets and starchy food. But remember that as you fast, your stomach will shrink and your metabolism will slow down.
“Emirati people have a wonderful habit,” explains Dr Huda. “When they break the fast, they don’t embark on a heavy meal. They eat a few dates with water and coffee, then they go for prayer, then they eat the main meal when everyone returns from the mosque.
“Normally when we break the fast, we have the biggest meal at sunset. Although the culture and hospitality of Arabs will encourage us to overeat, we need to remember that eating should be in moderation because at that time, our metabolism is slow.
“The meal at sunset should be balanced and healthy, consumed over a period of time. If you want to eat later on you can have smaller meals throughout the night. Be sure to have suhoor and do not skip meals.
“The diet should be balanced with carbohydrates, protein and fats. Drinking lots of fluids is also important but clear fluid, not juices as juice with a high sugar content will make your blood more sluggish – this is one reason many people will experience headaches after they eat.”
Cecilia adds, “I suggests breaking the fast with a couple dates, a couple of almonds and two glasses of water. A lot of the time it’s thirst that is confused for hunger, and drinking water first can prevent overeating.
“Soups, salads and fruits are also a good way to get in more liquid, while also packing in powerful phytonutrients that will help with the process of detoxification and help your body feel satisfied with all these nutrients. Lentil soup is one of the best choices you can make at the traditional Ramadan buffet.”
For pregnant women, Dr Ban suggests breaking the fast with a healthy meal that includes dates, protein and fibre, staying well hydrated from iftar to suhoor and eating an energy rich diet during suhoor to sustain you for the fast.
Pregnant women are more prone to hypotension, dehydration, hypoglycaemia, nausea and vomiting when fasting. But remember that your health is of utmost importance so if you feel dizzy, tired and weak, have a headache and extreme thirst or notice a decrease in foetal movement then you should consider stopping your fast.
Similarly, people who are diabetic should monitor their blood glucose levels twice as often as usual. Dr Huda recommends breaking the fast if your levels reach below 70mg per decilitre or above 300mg per decilitre.
Health isn’t just about the food you eat: Ramadan is also a great time to work on your fitness. If you regularly work out, remember that you may not be able to complete your normal routine at the same intensity and may also need to modify your schedule.
Cecilia explains: “The best time to exercise in Ramadan is right before sunset; I believe that you can push yourself a little more knowing that you’re going to break your fast soon.
“If your busy schedule doesn’t allow for that, try working out about one hour after eating. At that point, you will have digested some of the food and have more energy. The worst time to hit the gym is in the middle of the day, because those fasting will exhaust themselves and be unable to refuel.
“However, if that’s the only time you are free, exercise for only 20 to 30 minutes and do low-intensity workouts.”