The phrase "you are what you eat" is commonly used to convey the idea that the food we consume has a significant impact on our overall health and well-being. It follows then that the nutrients our bodies absorb affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. This principle is particularly relevant during Ramadan, when our food choices have a significant effect on our energy levels. For instance, while it may be tempting to overindulge in sugary drinks and food during iftar after long-hours of fasting, this behavior can actually be harmful for our health. Therefore, it's crucial to pay attention to what we eat and ensure that our diet is balanced and nutritious in order to maintain optimal health during Ramadan.
Making the Right Food Choices at Suhoor
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, encouraged the consumption of suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, for those intending to fast. He advised for it to be a crucial meal as it helps fulfill the purpose of our body's needs to provide sufficient energy during the long hours of fasting. And so, it is vital to choose wholesome foods that keep us hydrated and satiated for an extended period. Here are some health tips.
Select the right carbs.
Although carbohydrates are essential for our body, we must be aware that consuming certain types of carbs, such as simple carbs which are typically found in white bread and pasta, can stimulate appetite in the morning. Hence, it is better to stick to complex carbs for suhoor. For example, having a bowl of oats for suhoor can help keep you feeling full and energized throughout the day. Oats are also high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which can help regulate blood sugar levels and provide sustained energy.
Talbina or barley porridge, is also another great choice. Not only is it a nourishing and soothing food, but also one of the traditional foods that our beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to consume and enjoy, for its healing and comforting properties. Talbina, is barley flour used to make a creamy textured porridge.
Eat protein-rich foods.
When you fast, your body goes into a catabolic state where it starts breaking down muscle tissue for energy. Consuming protein-rich foods at suhoor can help preserve muscle tissue and prevent muscle loss. They can also help slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, which can be helpful in preventing blood sugar spikes and crashes. This can be especially important for people with diabetes or those at risk of developing it. Eggs, cheese, yogurt, milk, and nuts are all excellent sources of protein that can help keep you feeling full and energized throughout the day.
Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey and minced beef are also rich sources of protein and other important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, which can help ensure that you are getting the nutrition you need during the fast. And not only that, but they can be made in several ways to suit your tastes.
Consider fiber-rich foods.
Soluble fiber turns to gel in the stomach and slows digestion, which helps to lower cholesterol and blood glucose, and keeps us from feeling drained during fasting. Fiber-rich foods also help in preventing constipation, which can become quite a problem especially when we are fasting on a continual basis during the month.
Foods that are high in soluble fiber include oats, barley, legumes, fruits like apples and bananas, and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and peas. Consuming these foods at suhoor can provide sustained energy, promote digestive health, and support heart health.
Incorporate healthy fats.
Fats are a dense source of calories, providing more energy per gram than carbohydrates or protein. This can be especially important during the fast when the body needs a sustained source of energy to function properly. Moreover, some vitamins and minerals are fat-soluble, meaning they need to be consumed with fat in order to be absorbed by the body.
Healthy fats can be a good choice for suhoor as they can help ensure that you are getting the full nutritional benefit from your meal. Just like other parts of the body, our brain also requires a steady supply of energy to function. And, since it is largely composed of fats, it is essential to consume food rich in healthy fats at suhoor, to help support cognitive function and mental clarity during the day.
Healthy fats include foods like nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, and coconut oil. Including these foods in your pre-dawn meal, can provide sustained energy, support nutrient absorption, and promote brain function. It is important to consume healthy fats in moderation as they are still high in calories, but they can be a beneficial addition to a balanced suhoor meal.
Considering the above essential food sources, here are some examples of a balanced suhoor meal. You may use these as a reference guide to plan your own meal combinations.
- Oatmeal with sliced bananas, nuts, and milk
- Brown rice with chicken and vegetables
- Lentil soup with whole wheat bread sticks or crotons.
- Scrambled eggs with whole grain toast and avocado.
- Yogurt with mixed berries and muesli.
- Talbina with chopped dates and nuts.
While we adjust ourselves to the idea of fasting for the entire month, we can occasionally experience mental fog, decreased energy levels, and even headaches. This is linked in part to our body's requirement for adequate hydration. Therefore, it is crucial to utilize the non-fasting hours to level up our body's need for it. Here are some suggestions to help combat the problem.
Electrolytes can be a game changer in Ramadan. They play a significant role in maintaining proper fluid balance, transmitting nerve impulses, contracting muscles, and regulating the pH of the body's fluids. They are obtained through the foods and fluids we consume, and can be lost through activities such as sweating and urinating. The most important electrolytes in the human body are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate. These can easily be found in food sources around us; therefore, consuming these in the right quantities can be a savior.
Coconut water: It is known that coconut water contains essential electrolytes like potassium and magnesium and that in it, the potassium content is way more than a sports drink. A regular glass (240ml) of coconut water contains the same potassium as a banana, which we know is also a great choice to help us feel full for longer hours. Moreover, coconut water contains more potassium than sodium. Hence, it also helps stabilize the influence of salt on blood pressure. All in all, making it a super choice to keep one hydrated for extended hours.
Watermelon: We all know that watermelon is mostly made up of water, which makes it a hydrating fruit. Interestingly, watermelon also contains electrolytes. One cup (154 grams) of diced watermelon provides about 170 mg of potassium, which is approximately 4% of the daily value. Watermelon also contains smaller amounts of other electrolytes, such as magnesium and calcium, as well as sodium and chloride.
Cucumber: These too, fall in the same category as the above. One medium-sized cucumber provides about 300-400 mg of potassium, which is approximately 8-10% of the daily value. They also contain smaller amounts of other electrolytes, such as magnesium and calcium, as well as sodium and chloride. And, like watermelon, cucumbers are mostly made up of water, i.e. 95% which can help fulfill our body's need for hydration without having to force down multiple glasses of water.
Eating a Healthy, Balanced Iftar
While suhoor is important, one must not ignore the importance of breaking the fast with a well-balanced and nutritious diet as this is the meal that helps replenish energy levels and helps sustain your fast the following day. Therefore, making meaningful choices and avoiding high-sugar, high-fat, and processed foods can be beneficial as these can otherwise lead to energy crashes and may inhibit the body from getting or absorbing the right nutrients that it needs.
The following are some important food choices to consider, for iftar.
Hydrate before eating.
Drinking a glass or two of water before a meal rather than during it can prevent the delay of the digestion process. This is also needed as we want to avoid triggering digestive issues post iftar, such as bloating, as those may become a source of hindrance to carrying out acts of worship that follow (such as the obligatory prayers and Taraweeh). It is recommended to consume sufficient amounts of fluids like water, freshly squeezed juice, laban or yogurt drink.
Break your fast with dates.
Dates, a traditional fruit, is a great choice to break the fast with, and for good reason. Breaking of fast with dates is from the Sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and they are rich in natural sugars, fiber, and various nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and iron, making them a great source of instant energy and nutrition.
Incorporate vegetables into your diet.
A diet that includes a variety of colorful vegetables can be highly beneficial for your health as they are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber while being low in calories. Eating vegetables can also help with feeling fuller, making it easier to consume fewer calories during your main meal. Plus, their fiber content can help keep constipation at bay, too.
To ensure you're getting enough vegetables, aim for at least two servings per meal. One serving can be measured as 1/2 cup of cooked or raw vegetables, 1/2 cup of vegetable juice, or 1 cup of raw leafy greens. You can incorporate vegetables into dishes like soups, stews, and salads.
Opt for good quality proteins.
Prioritize the consumption of high-quality proteins that are easily digested and contain all the necessary amino acids. These amino acids are crucial for your body to build and maintain muscle mass. Opting for lean options can help limit the intake of saturated fats.
For iftar, consider including fish, skinless chicken or turkey, and low-fat dairy as part of your meal. If you follow a vegetarian diet, you can still obtain ample protein by selecting plant-based sources like legumes, beans, and nuts.
Choose good carbs.
Like suhoor, your iftar meal should also contain a good source of carbohydrates, preferably complex. This is because complex carbs provide a more stable and sustainable source of energy in addition to fiber and minerals. Brown rice, whole grain pasta or bread, potatoes or burghul are some good options to choose from.
Some examples of a balanced iftar meal include:
- Dates and water to break the fast
- Lentil soup with garlic bread
- Three beans salad with grilled chicken
- Baked fish with steamed vegetables
- Green leafy salad with feta cheese
- Fruit salad and a side of hummus
- Lasagna (filled with meat and veggies)
Making the right food choices does not only bring with it greater health benefits, but it is in fact a way of fulfilling our body's rights towards it, too. Moreover, when we begin to opt for healthier food choices at suhoor and iftar, it teaches our children too about the importance of incorporating a balanced diet in our meals. So let's take advantage of the many learning opportunities that Ramadan brings forth and make the most of this blessed month. Alhumdulillah, all praise be to Allah.
Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and mother of three boys. Always on the quest to learn, she is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. A writer in the making, she draws inspiration through deep conversations, laws of nature, and her own children. She and her family are currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.