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Is there such a thing called the “perfect” diet in Ramadan?

Fasting in Ramadan is a worship we wait for year after year, but also it has its challenges. With the days being so long and the fast lasting for 15 hours, it’s important to make every bite count. If you are not familiar with Ramadan, read my article in Today’s Dietitian. If you are a seasoned “faster,” I am sure you will find one or two of my tips helpful. The full article is published in Muslim Quarterly Magazine.

1. Choose your carbohydrates wisely

Complex carbohydrates, those made with whole grains, require more digestion time, thus are absorbed slower, typically after about 2 hours. These will keep you full for longer.

  • At suhur, always choose 100% whole grains. Multi grains mean they come from several plants but they are not necessarily whole. Ethnic breads are now available in whole grain versions. Try whole wheat mini bagels, whole wheat English muffins, bran muffins, and whole wheat pita or paratha.
  • Whole grain cereals can be part of your suhur. See the table for a list of breakfast cereals with high fiber and high protein content.
  • At iftar, choose dishes made with beans and lentils as they are considered complex carbohydrates. Try brown rice versions of long grain or basmati rice. Minute Brown Rice takes less than 15 minutes to cook.

2. Focus on healthy fats and limit fried foods

It sounds almost impossible to avoid fried appetizers because they are served at every iftar. But that only means you can spare yourself one, or a bunch, half the days. Oils, nuts, and seeds are nutritious, so make them part of your diet. Because fats take the longest to digest and leave your stomach the last, a reasonable portion at suhur will keep you full for longer.

  • Add a small portion of a healthy fat to your suhur. Choose from nuts, nut butters (peanut, cashew, or almond butter), olives, olive oil, sesame seeds, or sesame-based halawa (halva).
  • Bake appetizers instead of frying them. Many ready-made samosas have baking instructions on the package. Or, you can brush them with some oil and either bake or broil in the oven, which is actually easier.
  • Choose salad instead of fried appetizers. Use oil-based dressing. For a new flavor, top your salad with a handful of nuts such as walnuts, slivered almonds, or pecans.

3. Get enough protein

Your body needs protein for more than just muscles. Because it is slow to leave the stomach during digestion, protein will help you sustain the suhur meal longer. Choose lean proteins. Lean cuts are Select or Choice roast, round, sirloin, steak, or tenderloin for beef; chop, leg, or roast for lamb; and skinless chicken breast. Buy cheeses with 3 grams of fat or less per ounce. Don’t forget fish. Nuts and legumes are a good source of plant protein.

  • Make sure protein is in your suhur, such as eggs, peanut butter, cheese, meat, chicken, fish, beans, and nuts. Or, try a protein shake. Many simply require blending with a cup of milk. If you like cereal, choose one high in protein.
  • At iftar, one third of your meal should be a protein source. Although meat and poultry are the first to come in mind, don’t forget about beans and lentils.

4. Get 5 cups of vegetables and fruits a day

There is no reason to dwell on the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Despite their appearance in the Quran several times, “It is He who produces gardens, with trellises and without, and dates, and produce of all kinds, and olives and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in variety): eat of their fruit in their season,” (6:141) they are still lacking in many people’s diets.

  • Eat a fruit or vegetable at suhur. If leftovers, make sure the dish has vegetables. If traditional breakfast, add a fruit to your cereal or protein shake, or sliced tomatoes and cucumbers to your cheese sandwich.
  • Always have a vegetable with your iftar. A salad with oil-based dressing is great. Choose dishes at social gatherings that have vegetables in them.

5. Aim for 2 to 3 servings of dairy

Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, and also a good source of protein. Choose skim or low-fat milk and yogurt. Select cheese with less than 7 grams of fat per ounce.

One serving is a cup (8 ounces) of milk, 2/3 cup yogurt (6 ounces), 1 ½ ounce of hard cheese, 2 slices processed cheese, or 1/3 cup shredded cheese.

  • Have a dairy product at suhur. Drink milk. It counts as protein, fluids, and calcium.
  • Many ethnic dishes are accompanied by plain yogurt. Try low-fat or fat-free and indulge in a full serving of dairy.
  • Satisfy your sweet cravings with fruit yogurt. Although marketed for women, there is no reason why men cannot eat it. Top yogurt with fresh fruit, crunchy whole grain cereal, a little bit of honey, and you will have the perfect healthy dessert.

6. Stay hydrated

The amount of fluids someone needs is variable. When you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated. So instead of aiming for a certain number of cups, monitor your urine color. The goal is colorless or slightly yellow. If dark, it indicates dehydration so drink more fluids at night.

All beverages count towards your fluid intake. However, juice has too much sugar and not enough fiber, soda is loaded with sugar, and too many caffeinated beverages may keep you jittery. Stick to water. Many fruits and vegetables are 90% water and contribute to fluid intake.

  • Always carry a water bottle to social gatherings, taraweeh, or tahajud. Water may not be available or easily accessible.
  • Count your fluid cups: 2 at suhur, 2 when you break the fast, and 9 more during the rest of the night. Soup, fruits and vegetables like watermelon and tomatoes, coffee, and tea count as fluids.

7. Pass the salt

Too much salt stimulates the thirst sensation in the brain. When you read nutrition labels, aim for less than 140 mg sodium per serving.

  • Keep the sodium in your soup in check.  Make it at home using low sodium broths or buy low sodium canned soups.
  • Always choose low sodium canned vegetables. If not available, rinse them with fresh water. Avoid pickles and processed foods as much as possible.

8. Manage constipation

Constipation is common in Ramadan simply because when fasting, there is no food to pass through the digestive system. Furthermore, with fried appetizers, processed breads, and white rice, people do not always get enough fiber for the calories they eat.  To keep things moving, focus on unprocessed plants, such as whole grains, bran, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Psyllium seeds, the active ingredient in Metamucil, are also a good source of fiber.

Other than fiber, regular coffee stimulates contractions in the colon and move stool. Decaf coffee works but not as effectively, while tea did not show any effect. In some studies, Dannon’s Activia worked, while in others, physical activity did.

  • Load your soup with vegetables, especially beans. Lentil soup is one example. No wonder soup is very common in Ramadan; a source of vegetable, fiber, and fluid.
  • Pack some high-fiber fruits to taraweeh and tahajud. Choose from blackberries, pears, apples, oranges, prunes, dried figs, and kiwi. Almonds have fiber too.

9. Limit overeating at social gatherings

In the Quran, moderation is recommended and waste is condemned. Many times, we don’t want to throw food away, so we feel inclined to finish our plate, thus get overstuffed. However, your body is not the trashcan and your responsibility as a Muslim is to nourish it with the best healthful foods: “Eat of what is on earth, lawful and good” (2:168). Your goal with iftar is to eat so you are no longer hungry, but to stop before you are stuffed and uncomfortable.

  • Fill your plate with one layer of food. If still hungry, only fill half of your plate the second time.
  • No need to eat from every single dish served.
  • Choose mixed dishes (stews) with vegetables in them.
  • Don’t load on fried foods, pastas, bread, and rice. Get the most nutrients for the volume.
  • Choose one type of dessert and get a small piece. Share with others if you want to sample more

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Shazia September 7, 2009, 11:05 pm

    Great blog post…very informative!

  • Evan Hughes October 5, 2009, 9:32 am

    For those looking to consume more brown rice, but don’t have hours to cook before leaving for work, rice cookers can be an ideal alternative to “Minute Rice”. Higher end rice cookers, such as the Zujirushi, are able to keep rices and other grains at the correct temperature for hours or even days with no loss of quality or moisture. We often fill ours the night before so that we have rice available for breakfasts or lunches the next morning.

    One question about this post. In section seven you mention cutting back on pickles. Yet in your article you mention that alcohol, or “foods contaminated with” are haram. I was under the impression that vinegar making processes were not 100% effective at removing the alcohol. What are the rules for consuming vinegar and pickles?

    • NourRD October 8, 2009, 1:02 am

      Thank you for your comment.
      Regarding your question, vinegar is not considered haram. The process of making vinegar involves 2 steps. The first one is when natural sugars (in apples as in apple cider vinegar) change into alcohol in the process of alcoholic fermentation. The next step involves the convesion of alcohol to acetic acid, giving vinegar its distinctive taste.
      The second step can happen naturally with time, the right temperature, and the presence of the right bacterial cultures.
      Scholars believe vinegar is halal because it changed from its original state. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions used to eat vinegar. The debate is whether vinegar derived from pure alcohol, for example wine vinegar, is halal or haram. Some argue that not all 100% of the alcohol is converted, thus haram, while others take the perspective that the intoxication doesn’t not exist anymore at the new state, thus halal. I am not in a position to make a fatwa (say which opinion is right). I am just presenting the facts.
      As far as pickles, they are made through fermentation. There are three possible by-products of fermentation. One is ethanol, an alcohol, as in wine and beer making. Two is carbon dioxide, as in bread making. Three is lactic acid, as in pickles, saurkraut, yogurt, kefir, and other sour products. So as you see, no alcohol is produced in the pickling process. Fermentation by itself is not haram. It’s the alcoholic by-products in only one type of fermentation.

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