While fasting is obligatory for all healthy Muslims (not children), there are exemptions for those who are ill or who’s health could be affected by fasting, for example, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people with diabetes.
How does fasting affect the body?
During fasting hours when no food or drink is consumed, the body uses its stores of carbohydrate (stored in the liver and muscles) and fat to provide energy once all the calories from the foods consumed during the night have been used up. The body cannot store water and so the kidneys conserve as much water as possible by reducing the amount lost in urine. However, the body cannot avoid losing some water when you go to the toilet, through your skin and when you breathe and when you sweat if it is warm.
Depending on the weather and the length of the fast, most people who fast during Ramadan will experience mild dehydration, which may cause headaches, tiredness and difficulty concentrating. However, studies have suggested that this is not harmful to health, provided that enough fluids are consumed after breaking the fast to replace those lost during the day.
For those who would normally consume caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee during the day, the lack of caffeine during the fast may initially lead to headaches and tiredness. This may ease over the course of Ramadan as the body adjusts to going without caffeine during the day.
Once the fast is broken, the body can rehydrate and gain energy from the foods and drinks consumed. Having not eaten for a long period, you may find it helpful to eat slowly when breaking the fast and to start with plenty of fluids and low-fat, fluid-rich foods.
While Iftar meals are often a time for celebration, with families and friends coming together to break their fasts, it’s important not to go overboard when eating during Ramadan. Consuming a lot of deep fried, creamy and sweet foods may cause you to gain weight during Ramadan. Ramadan can be a good time to make changes to improve the balance of your diet that you can sustain in the longer term.
Is fasting good for health?
Some studies have found that people lose weight during Ramadan (although they tended to put this weight back on after Ramadan). If you are overweight and would like to lose weight and keep it off, then making plans to maintain a healthy diet and get active when Ramadan is finished may help you sustain any weight lost due to fasting.
Some small studies have looked at the effect of Ramadan fasting on factors like blood cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood) and found a short term improvement in some cases although some studies found no effect. There have also been some small studies that suggest that Ramadan fasting may have a short term beneficial effect on the immune system. In both cases, the results of studies have been mixed and so more research is needed to confirm these results.
What to eat and drink at Iftar and suhoor
Iftar – when first breaking the fast go for plenty of fluids, low fat, fluid-rich foods and foods containing some natural sugars for energy, like:
- Drinks – water, milk, fruit juices or smoothies – water provides hydration without any extra calories or added sugars. Drinks based on milk and fruit provide some natural sugars and nutrients.
- Dates – traditionally eaten to break the fast since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, dates are a great way to break the fast as they provide natural sugars for energy, provide minerals like potassium, copper and manganese and are a source of fiber.
- Fruit – a traditional way to break the fast in South Asian cultures, fruit provides natural sugars for energy, fluid and some vitamins and minerals.
- Soup – traditional in many Arab countries, is a light way to break the fast and provides fluid. Traditional soups are based on a meat broth and often contain pulses, like lentils and beans, and starchy foods like pasta or grains, providing nutrients and energy.
After breaking the fast – meals vary between different cultures but try to make sure the foods you eat provide a balance of starchy foods, fruit and vegetables, dairy foods and protein-rich foods like meat, fish, eggs and beans.
After a long fast it’s natural to want to treat yourself but try to keep the amount of fatty and sugary foods and sugary drinks you have to a small amount. Remember that you only have a relatively short time each day to eat and drink to provide your body with all the essential nutrients and fluids it needs to be healthy, so the quality of your diet is especially important during Ramadan.
Suhoor – drink plenty of fluids, choose fluid-rich foods to make sure you are well hydrated for the day ahead and go for starchy foods for energy, choosing high fiber or wholegrain varieties where possible as these tend to be digested more slowly , like :
- Oats – these are whole grains and you could choose porridge, which will also provide fluids as it’s made with milk or water, or muesli with milk or yogurt.
- High fiber breakfast cereals – these provide plenty of fiber and are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, providing extra nutrients.
- Yogurt – this can be a good food to include at suhoor as it provides nutrients like protein, calcium, and iodine and B vitamins and also contains fluid.
At the end, we should say that a well-balanced diet is the key of healthy fasting during Ramadan.