Your guide to a healthy iftar
by Noha Mohammed
Te’dameny loosely translates as “over my dead body.” In my dictionary, that single word ― uttered by many a hostess as she plunks down that fat-oozing slice of roqaq or monstrous serving of butter-laden macaroni bechamel ― signals the imminent onset of calories, heartburn and indigestion. While it’s generally considered rude not to sample every single dish at the feast, if you multiply the number of calories by 30 days, the figures simply add up too fast.
But even if you aren’t concerned about your waistline (which you should be), you should at least be thinking of your health. Many people come out of Ramadan several kilos heavier, most of it in the belly ― the absolute worst place to gain weight, as that kind of fat is metabolically active and can influence the way your body processes sugars and other nutrients, hiking your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
So, what should a healthy iftar include? Read on:
Dates: When fasting, a person relies on the sugar in the body, particularly the liver. After roughly six hours (about the time of sohour) the body starts breaking down sugar in the liver. Unlike other sugar-filled food and drinks which take much longer to be absorbed, dates are rich in monosaccharides which travel quickly to the liver and pass into the bloodstream ― great for fasters but not a good idea for diabetics. But this is not all. Dates are also known to be high in carbs (giving you energy), vitamins B and D, calcium, phosphorous, iron (to combat anemia) and rennin (which aids the flexibility of blood vessels). Rich in fructose, they are also known as an antidote to constipation, are active against allergies (as they contain significant levels of zinc) and reduce acidity and heartburn.
Juice: All juices help correct water balance in the body and the sugars they contain are sufficient to give a much-needed shot of energy. See our 5 Minute Guide on page 194 for a breakdown of traditional Ramadan juices and their health benefits.
Soup: Like juice, it also helps maintain balance of both water and minerals in the body. Avoid rich creamy soups, such as creams of onion, mushroom or tomato, as they may be too much for the body to cope with at first, opting instead for chicken broth or soup with noodles, orzo or vermicelli. Not only is it easier to digest, it will also fill your stomach and will give you enough strength to go to prayers. Another option (and all-time Ramadan favorite) is lentil soup which, though richer than some, also comes chock-full of healthy ingredients such as onion, tomato and carrot (rich in vitamins) and, of course, lentils, which tend to fill the stomach without making you feel you’ve just eaten a horse. Team with one or two chunks of crusty, whole-wheat bread, which will also boost your energy levels.
Yogurt: Being essentially made of benign bacteria, it has incredible benefits when it comes to digestion. It is also known for its cleansing properties, which can expedite treatment of an upset stomach, and a daily dose of 2000 mg helps you dodge the absorption of as many as 60 calories. Although making yogurt every day at home is fast going out of fashion, studies indicate that store-bought yogurt, which has a slightly longer shelf life, isn’t as good for you. The culprit? Lactose, which is found in many milk products, but which some people (especially Europeans and Latinos) find difficult to digest. Lactose, however, is not found in yogurt that has not been fully fermented (less than 24 hours), like the kind made at home. Most often eaten at sohour, yogurt can also find its way onto the iftar table as a condiment flavored with dried mint and garlic.
Fuul: It takes pride of place on both the iftar and sohour tables, and rightly so. The so-called ‘kebab of the nation’ has been a favorite national dish since the time of the Pharaohs and can be found in abundance ― fresh, dried or canned. It goes without saying that this is the cheapest source of protein on the market. One cup of fuul has only 187 calories, a small price to pay for the 12.9 g of protein and 33.4 g of carbohydrates that have a stomach-filling effect and act as an excellent energizer. There’s only 0.68 g of fat in a cup of cooked beans and 9.2 g of fiber. Fuul also contains thiamine, zinc and folate. Many people complain fuul gives them flatulence, but you can avoid that, either by blanching the beans (soak well for 12-24 hours before cooking) or by blending cooked beans, processing and then draining them to get rid of the skin, which is usually quite tough and difficult to digest. Added cumin, which many use to flavor fuul along with lemon, is actually great for fighting flatulence.
Nuts: A myth says that you shouldn’t eat nuts, as they are high in fat. But the truth is: do everything in moderation. The body needs fats to survive. That said, unlike fats found in animals (which can contribute to heart disease), fats found in nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts have actually been found to lower one’s chances of a heart attack. Which is not to say you should eat too many of them. A handful is generally agreed as the best serving amount for daily intake. They are high in fats, but happily these fats are unsaturated. Almonds and walnuts in particular both have a positive effect on balancing blood cholesterol levels. Nuts help the heart by keeping blood vessels open, thereby preventing clotting. Nuts in general (and walnuts in particular) are high in alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega fatty acid that protects the heart and regulates circulation. They’re also a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid (especially important for pregnant women), vitamin E, potassium and protein.
Sweets: It may feel like committing a sin, but they are not so bad for you if consumed in small (make that miniscule) quantities. In fact, the super-concentrated syrup found in most Oriental desserts such as basboussa, baklawa and kunafa is a high source of glucose as well, of course, of fats. If you’re taking just the one piece, you don’t even have to worry about the cream or nut fillings, as cream offsets the sweetness of the syrup, while the list of benefits nuts have under their belt is endless.