Ramadhan is one of the holiest months for Muslims, a time enriched with spiritual benefits, but the effects don't just stop there. There are many physical, mental and social health benefits too. Unfortunately, we often overlook and don't attain all the other health benefits of Ramadhan.
Don't skimp on meals
We are instructed in the Qur'an (Al-Baqarah :168) to eat food that is both halal and tayyib (good for you). It is important to eat a balanced diet during Ramadhan, which should be based on eating the right proportion of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and dairy and making sure you eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and include nuts and fish. You should have your two meals a day, as tempting as it might be to skip suhoor out of fear of disrupting your sleep. Your suhoor will provide you with the essential energy and nutrients you need to carry you through the rest of the day, so it is important to make sure you wake up and eat a nutritious and wholesome meal.
Pick foods that keep you full
Base your meals on complex carbohydrates and fibre-rich foods, which are digested slowly and allow for sustained release of energy, making you feel full for longer. These include wholemeal flour, wholegrain bread, basmati rice, wheat, oats, barley, semolina, cereal, quinoa, and potatoes (with skin). Combine these with healthy proteins such as fish, eggs and white meat, or vegetarian proteins such as beans and pulses. Add healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocadoes, and include yogurt, milk, low fat cheese for some dairy and calcium. You can include a salad and soup for starters, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and fluid, and have fruit-based desserts instead of traditional sugary sweets. Dates provide natural sugars, are full of energy and fluid, and are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Another important aspect of healthy eating is portion sizes. Keep your portion sizes reasonable and avoid the temptation to have second and third rounds. Instead make sure you have healthy starters and plenty of fluids to prevent over indulgence and improve your fluid and nutrient intake. Counting your calories when you are buying and consuming food can help ensure you do not consume excess energy which can lead to weight gain. Average recommended intake for women is 2000kcal (84000kJ) and for men 2500kcal (10,500kJ), but this varies according to individual body composition, metabolism and activity.
Avoid unhealthy foods without giving up all the fun stuff
Many people associate Ramadhan with our favourite fried foods, such as samosas and pakoras, which are rich in calories and saturated fat that raise blood cholesterol and cause weight gain. Avoid deep fried foods, replacing them with healthier options. For the same reason, high fat-foods such as parathas, biscuits, pastries and chips should be avoided. Replace sugary drinks and desserts with healthier options, you should not have more than 30g/day of free sugar (seven teaspoons) as too much sugar is associated with diabetes, weight gain and tooth decay. Salt intake should be restricted to 6g/day, as this has been shown to reduce blood pressure, and therefore overall heart risk. Red meat is consumed in abundance in our communities. However, this should be restricted to 70g/day, and if possible limited to a couple of times a week, as excess red meat and processed meats have been linked to bowel cancer, as well as being high in fat content. As a guide, three thin-cut slices of roast lamb or beef are 90g, a quarter pounder is 78g, a large doner kebab is almost twice the recommended daily intake at 130g and a grilled 8oz beef steak is over twice the recommended intake at 163g. Learning to read and interpret nutritional labels every time you buy food can help you check what you're eating and turn it into a habit.
Use healthy cooking options
If using oil, use healthier options such as olive oil or pure coconut oil and try shallow frying instead of deep frying, or avoid frying altogether and instead bake, steam or boil your food. You can substitute salt with herbs, spices and lemon to add flavour, but be careful not to add too much as they can make you feel thirsty, as well as cause indigestion and heartburn. Replace sugary desserts with fruit or milk-based desserts and puddings. Try and shop for locally produced seasonal fruit and vegetables and eat wholesome foods whenever you can. If you are in a rush, you can look for healthy and halal-convenient options, but planning meals and recipes in advance can help avoid this.
Drink plenty of water
Our body is two-thirds water and it is important to keep hydrated. Aim to drink around two litres of fluid a day even during Ramadhan and try and space this out during the non-fasting hours. Taking a bottle of water to taraweeh prayers and sipping on this during prayer breaks can help you consume a reasonable amount of fluid gradually. You should avoid caffeine-based drinks as caffeine is a diuretic and stimulates water loss. An alternative is unsweetened herbal teas. Adding yogurt to meals as well as fluid rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, soups, stews, cereals, porridge, muesli (with milk or yogurt) can also help you get more fluid. Be mindful of fruit juices and smoothies which can be high in sugar and calories.
The author, Dr Shahid is a GP and Chairperson of the Muslim Doctors Association. She qualified with a distinction in Medical Sciences at University College London and also holds a Bachelors of Science in Pharmacology from University College London, and a Masters of Science in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has also completed a one-year course in Fiqh and Aqeedah at Ebrahim College, London. She currently works as a GP in Central and West London and has an interest in women and children's health, mental health and public health. She is an honorary clinical tutor at Imperial Medical School and an honorary faculty member at An Najah National University, Palestine at the Department of Community and Family Medicine. She has also worked in research and humanitarian settings in Lebanon, Greece and Calais. In the UK she delivers outreach clinics and health promotion workshops to ethnic minority groups. She is a keen traveller and linguist and enjoys reading and spending time with her family in her free time. She is currently learning Arabic.
Dr Hina J Shahid MBBS BSc (Hons) MScPH MRCGP DFRSH DRCOG DCH