Fasting and feasting during Ramadan makes healthy eating a challenge, but making more informed choices can help.
Have a healthy Ramadan
For people here in the UAE and around the world who observe Ramadan, August will be marked by daily fasting from dawn until dusk. From a nutrition standpoint there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure the daily fasting and feasting are as healthy as possible.
Slow and steady
Suhoor, the morning meal eaten before sunrise during Ramadan, is crucial to providing essential energy, nutrients and fluids for the day ahead. It also plays a role in preventing some of the common side effects of fasting, including dehydration and fatigue. When Ramadan falls during the summer months when the days are longer, as is the case this year, foods eaten at suhoor are especially important for keeping energy levels up throughout the day. For that reason, foods eaten at the morning meal should provide a source of energy that is long lasting.
When it comes to foods that release energy slowly, some are better than others.
Protein is a mainstay when it comes to long-term energy. Studies show that eating a healthy breakfast that is high in protein increases feelings of fullness and reduces hunger throughout the day. Examples of protein-rich foods include meat, fish and poultry, nuts and nut butters, dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and labneh as well as beans and legumes, such as foul medames.
Eggs are another high-protein food that can help ward off hunger during periods of fasting. One study, published last year in the journal Nutrition Research, found that when men ate an egg-based breakfast, they reported feeling less hungry later in the day. In fact, researchers found that when men ate a protein-rich breakfast that contained three scrambled eggs and one and a half pieces of toast, they consumed 100 fewer calories at their next meal, and a whopping 400 fewer calories over the following 24 hours. That was compared with when they ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast that contained a bagel, cream cheese and yoghurt. It is thought that protein helps suppress ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger.
Some carbohydrates also fit the bill when it comes to slow and steady energy. Studies show that carbohydrates with a low-glycaemic index, meaning they break down slowly and cause a gradual increase in blood-glucose levels, are effective at prolonging feelings of fullness. On the contrary, foods with a high-glycaemic index cause a rapid increase followed by a just as rapid decrease in blood-glucose levels and can trigger feelings of hunger.
Low-glycaemic foods tend to be whole and unprocessed and include whole grains, such as barley and brown rice, as well as fruits and vegetables, including cabbage, tomatoes, apples, cherries, grapefruit and peaches. Foods with a high-glycemic index contain a lot of sugar and tend to be processed and refined, such as white bread, cookies, pastries and other sweets.
Break the fast gently
Once the sun sets, the evening meal of iftar provides an opportunity to break the fast and is essential for restoring energy levels.
Traditionally, the daily fast during Ramadan is broken with dates and water - which, from a nutrition standpoint, is an excellent choice.
Not only do dates contain natural sugars that act as an immediate source of energy for the body, they're also high in potassium - a mineral and electrolyte that helps maintain the body's fluid balance. Having some dates and water is also an effective way to fill the stomach and take the edge off your hunger before sitting down to a larger meal.
While the urge to overindulge after daily fasting may seem appealing when you're hungry, it's advisable to tread carefully to avoid weight gain during the month of Ramadan. The food offerings at iftar can be a minefield of calories and artery-clogging saturated and trans fat-filled foods, including fried foods and sweets. Enjoy these in moderation and if you must reach for seconds, do so with the healthier options at the table.
If you have trouble reining in your appetite after the daily fast, try starting off with a bowl of soup. One study from researchers at Pennsylvania State University in the US, found that when people ate a bowl of low-calorie soup before a meal, they reduced their total calorie intake for that meal by 20 per cent. Researchers warn, however, that not all soups are created equal, and some may actually increase the overall calorie content of a meal. They recommend choosing broth-based soups instead of thick, creamy soups that tend to be laden with both calories and fat.
Another added benefit of eating soup during Ramadan - it helps boost your daily fluid intake.
There's an increased risk of dehydration when Ramadan falls during the hot summer months, so it's critical to drink plenty of fluids when you're not fasting.
According to the Institute of Medicine in the US, men need to drink about three litres of fluids per day, while women need about two litres. Unfortunately, fluid requirements don't change when you're fasting, so that means you need to make an extra effort to stay hydrated before dawn and after sundown.
Drinking fluids before, during and after meals can help boost your daily fluid intake, as can eating foods naturally high in water, such as melon, cucumbers, tomatoes, leafy greens and oranges.
And when it comes to filling your glass, it's important to choose carefully to avoid unnecessary calories. For instance, fruit juice, a mainstay at many iftar buffets, can be a concentrated source of calories. Some recipes for qamar al din, the popular apricot-based drink enjoyed during Ramadan, have upwards of nine teaspoons of added sugar per serving - that's 150 calories worth of the sweet stuff.
Beverages with added sugar can certainly be enjoyed as part of the festivities, but should be consumed in moderation.
Most healthy-eating guidelines, including Canada's Food Guide and the new MyPlate from the US Department of Agriculture, recommend keeping fruit-juice servings to 125ml - equivalent to a very small juice glass. To avoid unnecessary calories, fill your glass with unsweetened beverages more often, such as water, milk, tea or coffee, and if you are reaching for juice, try to ensure it is pure and unsweetened.
The best way to approach your diet during Ramadan is much the same as you would during the rest of the year - eat balanced, healthy meals with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
Being mindful of how you prepare for, and break, your fast can help you identify unhealthy eating habits - just the information you need to make positive changes for the year ahead.
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