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Fighting the Flab

Staying healthy without piling on the pounds

There’s a huge difference between theory and practice when it comes to the holy month. All Muslims know that Ramadan is supposed to be 30 days of spirituality and self-sacrifice, a chance for one to cleanse both body and soul, but the majority of us tend to do just the opposite. From a health standpoint, what actually takes place during Ramadan is quite frightening.

As soon as the hilal (crescent moon) has been spotted and the announcement of the start of Ramadan has been made, we all switch into ‘fasting mode,’ which usually means three things: gastronomic overindulgence, sleep deprivation and marathon television viewing.

The result of this assault on the system usually leads to chronic fatigue, headaches, indigestion, constipation and for many an ‘inexplicable’ 3-4 kilo weight gain by month’s end. Not exactly the normal outcome of a 30-day fast.

Nutritionists and religious experts alike strongly urge those who fast to follow a few simple guidelines that can make Ramadan a more spiritual and healthy month.

The first rule to follow is never try to cram 24 hours worth of food into your body within 4–6 hours. It will overload the system, wreaking havoc on digestion, metabolism and blood sugar levels. It is also unwise to voraciously dig into an iftar filled with rich, fried and fat-laden foods on the justification that, “I’ve been fasting all day and I deserve to indulge.” You cannot consume your total daily calorie allowance in one meal and expect to retain your current weight level. Calorie intake must be spread out, which can be a little tricky during Ramadan.

Dieticians recommend that the fast be broken gradually. Many even claim that having a drink (fruit juice and water) and a light snack at sunset, then waiting one to two hours for a full meal is a very healthy practice. It gives your system a chance to adjust after going up to 12 hours without processing nutrients. What’s more, it’s Sunnah to eat tamr (dried dates) at sunset, perform the evening prayer and then start with the main meal or iftar. This is one Sunnah, however, that many people choose to ignore, making a beeline for the sambousek and mahshi before the muezzin has even finished saying “Allahu Akbar!”

Dried dates, or any dried fruits, for that matter, are considered ideal for Ramadan. Dried fruit is an excellent source of sugar, fiber, carbohydrates, potassium and magnesium and should be included as an essential part of the evening meal (either as dessert or appetizer) rather than a television viewing snack to nibble on after the kunafa and before the late-night basboussa.

Desserts are perhaps one of the worst enemies of good health and nutrition during Ramadan. In addition to being high in calories and cholesterol, they spike blood-sugar levels to alarming highs and should be particularly avoided by those with diabetes or a family history of the disease. Although it may be difficult to completely avoid sugary delicacies this month, it is wise to eat them in moderation.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are often completely forgotten during Ramadan. Including all four food groups in your diet is essential. It is also a good idea to consume slow-digesting and fiber-rich foods so that you don’t wake up feeling hungry in the morning. These include whole-wheat breads and pastas, beans, lentils, bran, wheat germ, green beans, peas, spinach and almonds. Since few of us are disciplined enough to strictly monitor our nutritional intake during Ramadan, vitamin supplements ― particularly a comprehensive multivitamin ― are a good idea.

Water intake should also be taken note of: With the amount of tea, a diuretic, that is consumed between dusk and dawn, dehydration is a serious problem for many, who simply forget to drink water and can go for days without having a single glass. For those who suffer from severe caffeine withdrawal symptoms during Ramadan, doctors recommend that caffeine intake gradually be reduced two to three weeks before the start of Ramadan (a tip to remember for next year) so as to minimize the headaches that result from a sudden drop in caffeine levels.

While many choose to bypass sohour because they feel that they may have overindulged during their extended post-iftar waking hours, this is not a good idea. A light sohour, which could be a glass of water and a piece of fruit or yogurt, is an important energy booster that can keep you from feeling excessively lethargic the next day.

It may be difficult to maintain your normal exercise routine during Ramadan, but it is not necessary to forgo physical activity all together. Fitness specialists recommend low-impact exercise while fasting that will not lead to excessive sweating and dehydration. Yoga, Pilates, stretching, and swimming are all good options. These may be performed either early in the morning while energy levels are still up or right before iftar so that one may eat or drink directly afterwards. High impact exercise should never be performed while fasting.

With a bit of discipline and self-restraint, Ramadan need not be the 30-day marathon of gluttony that it has become. It is a perfect opportunity to detox your body, kick a bad habit, or lose a few pounds.


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