Ramadan – A Nutrition Solution?

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The blessed month of Ramadan is upon us again.

I was hoping to write this article at least a week before the beginning of this auspicious month, unfortunately this was not the case due to circumstances beyond my control.

Insha’Allah, the information presented below will be some what of an eye-opener for many, for others it shall be a new way to implement a side of Ramadan that is unfortunately neglected and for most of you it’ll be both.

Every year, when we sit down and prepare for iftar, I am disturbed at the amount of food that is prepared to break (or open) the fast, this coupled with the actual types of food that are presented is seriously a double whammy! Most of the food is deep-fried, full of sugar, highly processed and causes inflammation and free radical damage – basically: nothing but a health disaster. (Free radicals are formed when weak bonds split in the body, they can damage your body and come from a number of sources, e.g. cigarette smoke, pollution, deep-fried food etc.)

I remember, not in the too distant past, I was oblivious to the importance of good nutrition. I too would consume the aforementioned foods carelessly, not knowing the damage it was doing to me as well as its contribution to making my fasts more difficult – yes I said more difficult. Even more surprising and shocking is the fact that at the end of this month many put on extra weight despite the decreased caloric intake (i.e. eating less).

This must really amaze you, right? We eat less and put on more weight?!

So you’re probably wondering how this can occur and what is wrong with the status-quo?

Well before I delve into this, let me explain briefly what happens in our bodies when we fast.

During a fast, our metabolism drops and the body can delegate it resources to healing the body appropriately as opposed to constantly digesting the food we consume.
The body initially uses circulating glucose (i.e. the carbohydrates that you last consumed) to maintain bodily functions and sustain the organs, this source of energy does not last long. Thereafter the body shifts to the glucose stored in the muscles and then the liver (stored as glycogen). After the near depletion of these energy sources, the body shifts to the use of stored protein, this involves converting the amino acids (i.e. protein in its simplest form) into glucose (a process known as gluconeogenesis). When these primary sources of fuel are used, the body finally resorts to the use of fat as energy, though it is not the preferred source.

Because we fast from dawn till dusk, the body’s use of fat is somewhat minimal in comparison to the use of stored carbohydrates and protein.

Fat is very energy dense (approximately 9 calories per gram, where as carbohydrates and protein have approximately 4 calories per gram) and storage in the body is very simple.

The body does not solely use one source of energy until it has finished and then resort to the next, it only uses a larger amount of one compared to the other. For example, fats cannot be used without the presence of carbohydrates.

Don’t get me wrong, we do burn fat during our fast, though not a large amount. Fat is best utilized during sedentary activity (i.e. sitting, limited or no activity etc.), you’re probably burning fat as you read this article, unless you’re running or something – unlikely! So if you’re taking it easy (physically) during your fast, you’re more likely to burn more fat – that doesn’t mean blend in with your office/home furniture!

For those of you who are worried about losing muscle mass, don’t be, you’ll be fortunate if you were to even lose 1% (note: adequate nutrition is also required to minimise this loss further – shall be discussed in the next few blogs and briefly touched upon further below).

In very simple terms that is what occurs in our body during a fast.

So the next question should be….what is a good nutritional approach?

I’m glad you asked 😉

Well, overeating and gorging on lots of food is definitely one way of upsetting your body (aesthetically and definitely from a health perspective).

Remember, your body won’t have used a lot of fat during the fast (in comparison to the amount of protein and carbohydrates), so replenishing the protein and carbohydrate stores should be the priority, that doesn’t mean you can eat deep-fried chicken and all the sugar you want – that won’t work out very well!

The best food to break your fast with is some dates – we all know this as it was the practice of the prophet Muhammed (SAWS).

But did you know that dates are highly concentrated in sugars, primarily fructose, which is the sugar that is used by the liver and then supplied directly to the brain! Amazing huh? The first food that the prophet (SAWS) consumed instantly replenished the energy in a vital organ (the liver) and also his brain.

The liver also plays a major role in metabolism, hence the consumption of dates provides and prepares this organ with the much needed energy to accomplish this task adequately.

After breaking the fast and then praying Maghrib we can continue with our food.

Before we proceed with the “rights & wrongs” of some of the well-known dietary mishaps, I need to briefly touch upon fats again.

Over time, our fat stores accumulate environmental toxins such as PCBs, DDT and benzene. When bound in the adipose (i.e. fat) tissue, these toxins are relatively harmless, however during a fast the fat is broken down and used as energy, hence these toxins are released and given a second chance at causing havoc in the body. This should not result in consternation, on the contrary, it is a good reminder of the importance and benefit of appropriate nutrition and its ability in combating such issues. The release of such toxins is minimal as the fast is not longer than 24 whole hours, if this was the case then you really would release more. To really rid yourself of these toxins you would need to employ a detox regime (it’s not that daunting I promise, it’s very simple), however I shall not discuss this topic here as it shall divert us from the purpose of this article.

Simply put, eat foods high in antioxidants (these are natural body chemicals or drugs that reduce and combat free radical damage, e.g.fruit and vegetables – preferably with every meal) and those that have very strong detoxification (i.e. cleansing) abilities (e.g. cruciferous vegetables & sprouts – preferably in raw form or lightly steamed). Any further discussion of these topics would require an article within itself and therefore is beyond the scope of this article.

Now I can’t tell you what to eat exactly, but I can definitely give very good examples that will help you dictate and distinguish good choices from bad.

The first real meal after maghrib should consist of protein (e.g. chicken, turkey, egg white) and carbohydrates (brown wraps – aka Lebanese bread/kubz, brown rice, lentils – also high in protein, beans, quinoa, wholegrains etc.), with little fat (you will probably get enough fat from the above foods, though other good sources of fat are: olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocadoes etc.). I can’t specify exact amounts of food as everyone is different and requirements shall vary considerably, though the best indicator is when you feel content and satiety has been reached without overeating!

Try not to drink too much liquid with your meal (a small amount is fine) as this shall impair digestion. Approximately 30 – 60 minutes after the meal would be an ideal time to consume some liquids.

The next meal (probably after taraweeh) should consist of the same break down of macronutrients (i.e. protein and carbohydrates), though this is not a must, it is recommended. One could simply indulge in eating some fruit or anything that the individual desires (within a healthy reason).

Whatever you do, don’t have meals with a high combination of both carbohydrates and fat. When a high amount of carbohydrates and fats are consumed, the body releases a very large amount of insulin which inevitably results in weight gain as well as a myriad of other problems.

This doesn’t mean you can’t combine the two macronutrients, just be careful not to have too much of both at one sitting.

For suhoor (pre-dawn meal), I recommend a protein and fat meal. Examples of which include eggs (protein & fat), nuts & seeds (fats), fish: salmon, sardines, mackerel (all protein & fat) etc.

Now for those of you who really need some carbohydrates at that time of the morning and can’t possibly see yourselves eating the above, then I recommend steel-cut oats or rolled oats (not the quick cooking ones), barley porridge or a protein and carbohydrate meal of your choice.

It is important to note that the actual food types are just as important. For example, grilled chicken breast (without skin) is far superior compared to deep fried chicken. Deep fried chicken has been deep fried (obviously) in hydrogenated oil (this stuff is so bad that the FDA doesn’t even recommend a minimal amount to consume, they advise to avoid it totally!). In this example, I have stated to avoid the chicken skin due to the toxins in the skin (which is mainly composed of fat – remember this is where most of the environmental chemicals reside as discussed earlier) – this is a direct result of the mistreatment of the chickens and the environment and feed they are exposed to.

In terms of carbohydrate choices, the least processed are the best. Brown bread instead of white bread, oats/shredded wheat instead of rice krispies/coco pops etc., basically whole grain carbohydrates as opposed to refined grains. Fruits and vegetables are VERY good sources of carbohydrates and they are totally natural too, not mentioning the many health benefits one can experience with an increased intake, though vegetables contain very little carbohydrates so they won’t be very filling.

Good fat choices include seeds and nuts, olive oil, flaxseed, avocadoes etc.

Initially, when trying to implement this information you may be faced with many questions. This is a good thing, as it can result in you learning new information about good dietary habits and how to distinguish between different types of foods.

Take home points:

– Preferably break your fasts with dates

– Don’t overeat.

– Don’t consume too much fat and carbohydrates at the same meal.

– Avoid highly processed foods (e.g. biscuits, white bread etc.)

– Consume whole grains as opposed to sugary foods, this shall help maintain and sustain blood glucose levels for longer and help avoid the slump associated with high sugary meals.

– Don’t drink too much with your food, it is better to drink most of your liquids before or after your meal (30 – 60 mins. after is ideal).

I hope my attempt at making this topic simple and informative was accomplished. If you like the article please send it to others.