It sounds daunting at first, and that’s because it can be. Once a year, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide partake in a fast. In a tradition spanning over 14 centuries, practitioners consume neither food nor water from sunrise till sundown for the whole month. This practice is seen as a method to develop greater empathy for the hungry and less fortunate.
Holy and culturally sacred? Yes. But healthy? We consulted Muslim nutritionist Leena Abed to find out. A weight loss coach, Abed relies on healthy habits and moderation over fad diets and restrictive eating for her clients’ success. Now, during Ramadan, this nutritionist is sharing timely insight on sustaining your health through this month of unconventional eating.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. Is fasting healthy, from a dietitian’s perspective?
Leena Abed: When you do it right, fasting during the month of Ramadan is perfectly healthy. Fasting for Ramadan is different from fasting from food and water in general. During this month, you have ample opportunities to hydrate and nourish your body with adequate water and food: Before dawn (Suhoor) and after sunset (Iftar). Fasting during the day, between Iftar and Suhoor, has been shown to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and incidence of disease. It’s also been shown to increase mental clarity.
How can we go without water from sunrise to sunset in the healthiest way?
LA: Not drinking enough water is definitely not ideal for optimal bodily functions. However, just because you’re not drinking water from sunrise to sunset doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dehydrated overall. Prioritize drinking 3 cups of water before sunrise, at Suhoor, and 3 to 5 cups after sunset, at Iftar. You’ll likely be hitting at least the minimum amount of hydration your body needs.
What are your top tips for fasting as healthfully as possible?
- Wake up for Suhoor: Many people sleep through this. But it’s vital to wake up, hydrate and, if you can stomach it, eat a balanced breakfast — fruits and veg, unprocessed whole grains, healthy proteins and fats.
- Don’t use Ramadan as an excuse to get lazy: Many people use Ramadan as an excuse to skip their workouts and move as little as possible. You should still get in some daily movement when you’re fasting to keep your energy levels up and your body healthy. Even if you’re not getting into the gym for an intense workout during this month, go for a walk. A 30-minute walk can go a long way.
- It’s easy to overeat, but it’s not fun (or good for you): When you’re fasting all day, your stomach shrinks and your eyes can be much bigger than your stomach. Overeating at Iftar kind of ruins the whole spiritual point of fasting! Practice filling your stomach on “⅓ water, ⅓ food and ⅓ air.” This expression, attributed to the prophet, is a good way to eat to a point of comfortability, and not past it.
What are your most important foods with which to break your fast?
LA: Traditionally, breaking your fast with a date is the way to go. Dates are easy to digest and a quick source of energy, nutrients, and help the body’s blood glucose levels return to normal. They’ll help decrease any feelings of intense hunger so you can go into your meal relaxed and prevent overeating.
What are the most important foods to eat before dawn to give you sustained energy throughout the day?
When it comes to Suhoor, you can eat anything as long as you prioritize fiber, protein, and healthy fats. A bowl of oatmeal with greek yogurt, chia seeds, and nut butter is a classic option. I also love a simple 1/2 cup of nuts and berries for quicker pre-dawn meals.
What are your Suhoor tips for people who want to practice Ramadan with their best health in mind?
LA: Drink water! I know how easy it is to feel discomfort drinking 2-3 cups of water, eating and having a cup of coffee within a short period of time. But the water part is very important. Even if it means you have to wake up 15 minutes earlier to fit it all in, do it.
That brings me to my second most important tip: Wake up for Suhoor earlier and consider staying awake. Instead of waking up with only 10 minutes to chug 3 cups of water and eat whatever is on the counter, give yourself at least 30 minutes to slow down, drink your water and eat a balanced breakfast. If you drink coffee or tea, consider staying awake for the rest of the day. Later in the day, don’t hesitate to take a midday nap if you need to.
What does Iftar in your home look like on the average day?
LA: I have 1 to 2 veggie options on my table. This can be in the form of a salad, veggie soup or a baked veggie dish, like a roasted zucchini for example. Yesterday, we had spaghetti squash made in the form of Tiktok’s viral tomato feta trend! I always make sure to have a protein, whether it’s a more traditional roasted lamb with the whole family or a classic salmon. While I’m fasting, it’s important to me to have a high-fiber carb! This can be rice, potatoes, etc. Though I do challenge you to be moderate on your portion here.
What is an all-time-favorite item on your Iftar menu?
LA: This is hard! I love a good spaghetti squash any day of the year and that doesn’t change during the month of Ramadan. I like to pair it with any sauce: Tomato, alfredo, pesto, olive oil and tomatoes… the list goes on! As much as my family loves a good, warm, traditional pot of bamiya (okra stew), we also love a good take out day where I normally opt for a Cava Bowl.
A clean, whole-foods diet is necessary any time of the year. But, when you’re fasting 16 to18 hours a day, keeping a closer eye on nutrition becomes paramount. We recommend the following recipes to for your healthiest, most nutritious pre-and-post fast meals yet:
Foods for Suhoor:
- Chai Oatmeal with Coconut & Cherries
- Superfood Salad
- Two Potato Rösti Waffle
- Eggplant, Fig & Goat Cheese Flatbread
- Sesame Tuna & Mango Salad
Foods for Iftar: