Although a spiritual and magical month that many of us enthusiastically wait for all year long, Ramadan is also a tough challenge. There are those of us who end up with a few unwanted extra kilos, and others who spend the month tired and drained then come out of it weak, depressed and suffering from low energy levels.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a common saying that fasting is a detox for the body; and detox diets are indeed in high demand nowadays. So, where do we go wrong? And how should we make the best out of that detox month?
To avoid any medical complications, mood swings or unsolicited weight changes that might interfere with the magic of the holy month, renowned nutritionist Dr. Cherifa Aboul Fettouh has helped us get all set for a healthy, productive and guilt-free Ramadan.
Is there a certain strategy we can follow to make sure we get a balanced nutrition during the fasting month?
Unfortunately, people lose a lot of [nutritional elements], especially in the beginning of Ramadan. As soon as we break the fast, we start with dates and then hurry into eating empty nutrients that are not of any benefit for the body; so we do not have any appetite for the necessary nutrients. Then we move on to sweets. You come out of Ramadan with more weight and feeling very weak.
To avoid that, I highly recommend the “hour strategy” [organizing your eating according to a regular hour system].
I don’t see a need to break the fast with dates; sweets are full of insulin, which increases your appetite. You can start with water, then go pray … I want you to pass some time and to start feeling a little bit full after five minutes of drinking the water, before you start eating.
Then sit and eat for a full 20 minutes, starting with the beneficial elements like salad. After these 20 minutes, you probably will not be hungry; and if you are, you will only want small quantities of [fatty dishes like sambusak]. You should also talk while eating to pass the time, don’t just focus on the food. After 20 minutes, your stomach sends signals to the brain that you are no longer hungry.
After two hours, you will want some sweets. Now, you can eat the dates or a small portion of konafa or other desserts. Don’t deny yourself anything, but take care of portions.
Then [you should have] sohour; sohour is extremely important. However, if you eat greasy food or simple carbohydrates like sweets and white flour, you will feel hungrier the next day.
Water is the most important thing; you need three liters of water per day. You should also work out, even if it is simply going for a walk.
Can you suggest a specific meal plan for Ramadan?
This is a diet that you can go on for a week.
- First, you break your fast with a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lemon.
- After a few minutes, you start with one cup of grilled orzo (lesan asfour) soup (instead of stirring the orzo in butter, get the full packet (so that you don’t have to do it every day), empty it in a non-stick cookware and leave it until golden, but make sure it doesn’t get burned. Add it to your soup and add one cup of skimmed milk. The white orzo soup is very delicious.
- Then take your plate and divide it. Add salad, vegetables, one serving of rice (use one yogurt cup of 110mg for the portion) and protein. If there is mahshi (rice-stuffed veggies), instead of rice and vegetables, you can have three big mahshi pieces or 10 stuffed vine leave pieces. This first plate you will eat in 20 minutes.
- Wait a bit before eating sweets. Then, you can either take a cake, or any kind of dessert, the size of a small box of matches; or 5 dates.
- For sohour, it is half a cup of foul (fava beans), salad, a piece of Areesh cheese (half the size of your palm) and one cup of yogurt. You could alternatively have a quarter loaf of baladi bread, half cup of foul and one yogurt cup. The third option is two boiled eggs, a piece of Areesh cheese and one yogurt cup.
This plan is for someone who is staying at home and does not do any activities. For someone who does some outdoors activities, they can add fruits, porridge or more to the portion of sweets.
Guilty pleasures are so hard to resist in Ramadan, with all the traditional sweets; can you recommend any specific healthy snacks to eat between iftar and sohour instead of gorging on desserts?
There are a lot of snacks; and there are also fruits that we tend to forget in Ramadan. We can eat three fruits per day; we can eat as much as we want of cucumbers and carrots. We can eat popcorn instead of nuts. We can eat seven to 10 raw almonds. If you do a lot of activities during the day, you can add another meal of oatmeal.
Are there any specific foods or nutritional elements that we should make sure we include in iftar or sohour meals?
Yes, there are; and we also need to be aware of the most widespread nutritional deficiencies.
Teenagers and women in Egypt suffer mostly from anemia; iron deficiency. Since it is widespread, I might be suffering from it as well. Therefore, every day, a piece of protein with a salad is a must. The salad allows the highest absorption of the protein because it includes vitamin C. As for people who don’t eat animal protein, there are complete proteins, a mix between plant protein like foul and seeds; because foul still misses some amino-acids that are found in seeds. This complete protein mix gives you what you need from animal protein; add one egg or a cup of yogurt, and it will be as if you had your piece of meat.
As for elderly people, absorption of protein-bound vitamin B12 is decreased, so they need supplements for it.
Also, Omega 3 is very important, especially that we break it up when we heat oil. Therefore, we don’t have a lot of sources for Omega 3 or vitamin E. We need to learn how to deal with oil as a vitamin that we need for our body. We can pour it cold on cooked food.
Is Ramadan a good time to start a diet and fitness journey for someone who wants to pursue a healthier lifestyle or reach their ideal weight?
It is not a good time. Many people might say Ramadan is a good time to start a new lifestyle; but in fact, Ramadan is not a lifestyle, it is a temporary style of life. Moreover, the temptation is very high in Ramadan; you might get weaker and feel down, so you give up [on the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle]. From our traditions as Arabs, we have a lot of iftar and sohour invites in Ramadan and [they turn into] feasts … If you decide to go on a diet or to start a new lifestyle in Ramadan, you will either get depressed or you get away from people.
However, we can take Ramadan as a step to stop focusing much on food, [but] learn more about it and be smarter than the temptation … Fasting might also be a chance to stop smoking. If you usually smoke one pack during the day and one in the evening, you don’t have to compensate both at night. And to get used to it, you can start a gradual reduction before Ramadan. The problem with cigarettes, however, is that when people quit, they usually gain weight because cigarettes burn from 10 to 20 percent of the food intake. It is very important that if you are going to quit smoking, you should reduce the food you eat by 10 to 20 percent.
For athletes or people who have a regular workout plan, when is the best time to work out in Ramadan?
After eating … Never work out before eating or you would risk a stroke. When you [play] sports before breaking the fast, water deficiency in the body can [trigger] a stroke. It is very important to work out after drinking water; or right before you break your fast—in the last 30 minutes—which is usually very difficult for most people.
Does fasting really affect our mood or mental state? How so? And how do we deal with it?
Definitely. While fasting, sugar levels in the blood are low. This makes you feel depressed and very down; and you can’t concentrate much. This low blood sugar is a huge problem for people who don’t eat well in sohour.
However, once you get used to fasting, you are eating well and you have a stable blood sugar level, you will find that your productivity is the highest.
Can you give us any general tips for a healthy Ramadan?
Many people suffer from constipation in Ramadan, which is normal because your eating habits change. Therefore, I recommend adding flax seeds to your sohour yogurt. It prevents the constipation problem and improves your mood. You can also add it to your salad because it has calcium and vitamin E, and will make up for a lot of the vitamins your body needs.
Dr. Cherifa Aboul Fettouh is a comprehensive nutrition consultant and is the founder of Nutrition Planet. She also has a PhD in nutrition and psychological effects from Williamstown University in Berkley and holds several degrees in nutrition and group therapy.