Ramadan 101: The Science of Fasting, Healthy Meal Options & FAQs
Happy Ramadan! With Ramadan here, I've been practicing balancing work life, study life, family life, and fasting. In order to do so, I need to make sure I'm fuelled with nutrient dense foods. As a dietetic intern, I'm passionate about food - I mean, it's all I talk about all day long! It's my passion.
In todays article, I shed a little light on what Ramadan is, I touch on some foods that will help keep you full throughout your fast & I've included a little Q&A at the end! You get to know me (and muslims in general) a little more when it comes to fasting.
Let's get started.
For my non muslim friends: Ramadan is celebrated by muslims around the world once a year - it lasts for about 30 days. During this month muslims refrain from food & water from dawn to dusk. Muslims fast to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran (Muslims religion text).
The number one question from many muslims is, how can we stay energized throughout the day?
Food is fuel and being the food expert I am, I’m here with some practical tips & advise on how to help you stay full, energized, and alert this Ramadan.
Let’s start off with the science of what’s happening in our body while we fast. This will help us better understand why eating balanced meals during Ramadan is so important.
While on my quest for research based articles on fasting, I stumbled upon the Ramadan Health Guide: A Guide to Healthy Fasting Found on PEN: Practice evidence Based Nutrition - the Global Resource for Nutrition Practice. This guide is supported by the National Health Service.
Here are some of my findings:
The Science of Fasting: What's Really Happening in our Body?
The body technically enters a fasted state "eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finished absorption of nutrients from the food" direct quote.
As you know, when we eat food, our body converts this food into energy. For example, when we eat carbohydrates, it essentially turns into glucose, goes into our blood steam, our cells, and also gets stored in our liver for when we need energy later that day. Glucose is also what our brain needs to function. So, in a non-fasted state, our body is getting glucose all day long while we’re eating. However, when we fast, out body relies on the glucose stored in our liver for energy - that's why it's important to eat balanced meals during Ramadan - to ensure our bodies are toped with energy for long hours of fasting.
So what happens when our glucose stores get low? Well, our body relies on our fat stores. The body breaks down fat to burn as energy after it's used its glucose stores.
When our body runs out of fat stores, it depends on protein from our muscles. This only happens with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks (in Ramadan, we fast 12-18 hours, not days and weeks). The time between dusk to dawn provides ample amount of time to replenish our glucose stores, allowing the body to depend on glucose, then fat, and prevent the body from eating up our own muscle.
After a few days of the fast during Ramadan, higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood. What does this mean? We have a better level of alertness and an overall feeling of general mental well-being.
Foods that will Help Keep you Full & Energized:
What Foods to Eat for Iftar (Sunset meal)?
- Eat foods that contain fibre - fruits, veggies, whole grains.
- Eat Whole grains (quinoa, multigrain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice) - when choosing whole grains, look at the label for 2-4 grams of fibre per serving on the nutrition facts table (this is a good option).
- Protein source (chicken, beans, beef, eggs, yogurt)
-These foods can be divided onto your plate: Half your plate veggies (salad, roasted broccoli, asparagus), quarter of your plate protein (chicken, eggs, lentils, beans), and a quarter of your plate whole grains (whole grain tortilla, pitta, naan, whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa) & lots of fruit!
What Foods to Eat for Suhur (Pre dawn meal)?
- Again, foods that contain fiber, complex carbohydrates and protein.
- Carbohydrates will help top up your glucose stores in your body, so when you need that boost of energy mid day – you have it!
- Fibre keeps us full for long periods. Without it, we may start to feel hungry earlier on in our fast.
- Protein helps to keep us full (eggs, nut butters, nuts, homemade granola)
- Drinking lots of water will help keep you hydrated for the next day! I strive to drink 2.5-3L from sunset to pre-dawn
Are There Foods we Should Limit?
Traditionally, we may like to indulge in fried food after we break our fast - samosa's, cheese breads, etc. Believe me, I know how good those samosa's smell & if they were in front of me, I'd put one on my plate too. Our eating environment can affect how much or little we eat of certain foods. If you have fried food in your house daily, try limiting your fried food intake to one a day, or every other day.
Help your family in the kitchen while cooking Iftar and add a veggie dish - this way, half of your plate can be veggies! Foods that will keep us full longer, help our bodies function normally without getting too exhausted, and foods that will make us feel happy are all important and part of a balanced diet.
Since a lot of my friends aren't muslim, I thought it would be interesting to know what questions they had about Ramadan and fasting. I've compiled some of their questions along with questions I get quite often while fasting. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me!
1. Do you still eat 3 meals a day?
Personally, I eat 2 meals. I start my fast around 4:30 am, so I eat and drink at 4:00 am. I'll eat a small meal at 4am with 0.5 - 1 L of water. Usually it's a piece of whole grain toast with a protein (chicken or eggs),and yogurt + chai seeds + berries.
At 8:30pm I’ll usually break my fast with a date, fresh fruit, and a smoothie. Then I’ll eat a balanced meal consisting of whole grains, protein, and veggies. I’ll drink about 2L of water throughout the evening. I usually sleep a little after the night prayer (Isha) around 10:30pm because of an early rise for school the next day. I'll sometimes squeeze in a snack before bed if I have time , but it hasn't happened yet. I find when I fast, I get more thirsty than hungry, so I try to find a balance with hydration and nutrients.
2. Does it disrupt your sleeping pattern if you have to wake up to eat, or go to bed earlier/later?
Yes. This year, I’ll be fasting from about 4:30 am – 8:30 pm. We’re to eat before the sun begins to rise and right when the sun sets – so we have sunrise and sunset times memorized this month (ha!).
Because the nighttime is such a spiritual time during Ramadan for Muslims, we like to stay up late and take this time to reflect and pray. However, when you work early hours, this isn’t always possible. This ramadan is my first having to wake up at a certain hour every morning (I was spoiled for the last 5 years with being able to sleep in every day!). I'll get about 6 hours of sleep throughout the night & I have been trying to take a 1 hour nap in the afternoon to make sure I'm getting enough sleep. Eating well balanced meals at sunset and sunrise is important for me to stay energized and alert during the non-fasting hours.
3. Do you lose weight during Ramadan?
I’ve personally never noticed a change in my weight over Ramadan. It’s likely because I tend to consume adequate number of calories in my non-fasting hours. This is my first Ramadan away from home, so I expect to maintain my weight or lose. Although I’ll be with family and friends often this month, it will be different from the rest of my previous Ramadan’s because of working, studying, away from home, etc.
4. What are the benefits of fasting?
Although I did some research on this, I didn't find many studies with humans that proved enough benefits or risks of fasting to recommend. However, if you'd like to read on potential benefits, check out Andy the RD's articles on The Metabolic Effects of Fasting: Are There any?
5. Does everyone have to fast?
No. Majority of Muslims observe Ramadan and take part in fasting. However, there are some Muslims who are exempted from fasting:
- Those who are ill (chronic & acute)
- Pregnant women
- Breastfeeding mothers
- Menstruating women
That means, if I get sick during Ramadan and I don’t feel well enough to fast, I can break my fast - eat, drink and take medication to cure my acute illness.
6. What does fasting teach you?
It sure teaches me how hunger cues feel, thats for sure. Ha! In all honesty, fasting teaches me empathy, patience, dedication, and gratitude. I'm thankful for all the food I get to enjoy after fasting for a long day. It also has taught me that I can do anything I put my mind & heart to.
7. Do you find joy in fasting?
Yes! Fasting is not only a time to refrain from food and water but also a time to self-reflect, become a better person, and do more good deeds. Because of this, I am always so excited when Ramadan comes around. It’s kind of like a recharge time for Muslims – we try to be more patient, help others more often, pray more, and connect with our Muslim community.
It’s a feeling that's indescribable. It’s a time of year Muslims can’t wait for – yes fasting is sometimes hard, but the reward and the feeling that comes with it feels 100 times better. We also tend to spend more time at the Mosque, which is always nice.
8. Can you begin to cook before the sun sets?
Yes. We can cook all day long if we wanted to. I'll admit, sometimes I get so excited for what we're eating in the evening that I start to prep it too early!
9. Can others eat around you?
Yes! We want those who're not fasting to eat as they normally would. Since we've been doing it for so long, we don't mind it. Sometimes, others feel bad or shy to eat around us, which I understand is out of respect - but we're okay with it! We're choosing to fast.
Thanks for stoping by! I hope this blog gave some insight on healthy eating during Ramadan & taught you a little about the science of fasting. I hope everyone has a lovely, blessed, happy and healthy Ramadan!
Until next blog,