By Eric Cohen, PN1
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and is observed by Muslims as a month of prayer, spiritual reflection and self-improvement. During this time, most adult Muslims, among other practices, fast (sawm) from sunrise to sunset. This fast prohibits both eating and drinking.
Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar with less days than the Gregorian calendar, the timing of Ramadan moves around from year to year – meaning the length of the fast changes from year to year and from location to location, depending on the position of the sun. In 2021, in Toronto – the fast initially runs from approximately 5:15 am to 8:00 pm, lengthening to 4:20 am until 8:35 pm by the end (about a 15 hour fast).
Each day, before dawn, Muslims observe a pre-fast meal (suhoor) and, at sunset, they break the fast with the iftar – a small meal, followed by prayers and then the main meal. While this may sound like a good way to lose weight (although this is not the intent of Ramadan), in reality, studies show most people gain weight during this period. Why would that happen?
Ramadan is similar to intermittent fasting – which is very much in vogue these days. And as we know, intermittent fasting (which means you refrain from eating for a certain period of time each day), only works for weight loss if you consume less calories than you would otherwise. In reality, people are so hungry after their fasting period – they often eat as much as they would have eaten had they not fasted, or even more – resulting in no weight loss or even weight gains.
So, how can Muslims ensure they don’t gain weight during this period? By concentrating on the same things you should be doing outside of Ramadan. Eating healthy, nutritious foods in the right quantities.
For suhoor – the morning meal – don’t overeat to prepare for the day. But make sure you are eating complex carbs and proteins, which will help you feel full for longer. Examples include overnight oats with protein powder or eggs or cheese with whole grain bread, and you should include some fruit.
For iftar, try to start by having just water and fruit (like dates) before the prayer, avoiding the fried appetizers. This is the point at which you are hungriest and normally start to eat quickly and ‘recklessly’. By eating and drinking a little bit before the prayers – it will quench some of that immediate hunger and help to ensure you’re not ravenous when the main meal starts after the prayers, therefore allowing you to make better, more mindful, choices.
For the main meal – you will want to avoid fried foods and rich desserts, but most importantly, don’t use this as an opportunity to make up for missed calories, which you can easily exceed. Just try to eat a normal meal – including proteins, starch, vegetables and fruit. Remember, you are probably eating this meal after 9:00 pm, so the more fried, sugary foods you eat, the more likely it is to impact your sleep.
A couple of other things to keep in mind:
- Because of the early morning meals and the late-night prayers, many people become sleep deprived, which further leads to making poor nutrition choices. Recognizing this will help you to realize you have to be even more conscious and mindful of your food choices.
- Coffee can be a problem, as many people can’t have it late at night without affecting their sleep. And many people will get headaches from caffeine withdrawal during the day. The best way to avoid this is to start reducing your coffee intake a few weeks before Ramadan starts, so the headaches won’t happen. Have coffee for suhoor, but for iftar, try decaf coffee or tea, which has less caffeine.
- Continue your normal exercise routine. Studies on athletes during Ramadan have shown their endurance and performance actually improved during Ramadan (but their strength didn’t). Rather than making you more tired, exercising during the day will actually boost your energy for the rest of the day.