I was encouraged to write this post by a couple of patients who had worry about feeling totally out of balance during and after Ramadan. The decisions of what to eat during suhoor and iftar can be difficult for vegetarians or those with food restrictions, or not wanting to give into the urge to gorge on food after sundown. As I started researching for this post, I came across this trend: During Ramadan- cardiovascular risk factors decrease and insulin sensitivity improves! Surprising and not surprising. Fasting can decrease inflammation. I also noted most of these studies were done where traditional cuisine is prepared.
Perhaps there are cultural and religious aspects of choosing certain foods that I don't understand during Ramadan because I am not Muslim, but I will offer 3 hot tips that just make physiologic sense on balancing the body during and after long periods of fasting.
It's summer, so as you would select foods that are high in natural electrolytes to refresh yourself during the hot summer days, you can prepare your body for fasting just the same. Juicing or fruit and veggie smoothies can be an easy way to replenish. Use 3-4 types of fruits/veggies that have high density of electrolytes (Sodium and Potassium) which helps the body retain water and store needed fluids. I discussed making detox juices in my earlier blogpost, but I should emphasize adding carrots, apples, and beets to juices or mixing in dates, or figs to smoothies can be a great way to add Magnesium, Calcium, and other trace minerals and electrolytes to your drinks. The reason why Gatorade is "The Thirst Quencher" is because it mimics the balance of Sodium, Glucose and Water- the perfect combo for driving water into your cells and preventing against dehydration.
Coffee is great for stimulating that needed energy for the day, but is a natural diuretic- meaning it makes you urinate more frequently. Be mindful of this in the morning especially when fasting and needing to retain fluids. Herbals teas can mimic the diuretic effect, but can also be nutritive. Alfalfa, Panax Ginseng, Rose Hips, WIld Milky Oats can be a good blend to replace coffee but also give energy, vitamin & minerals and hydrate! Highly popular coconut water can become the perfect rehydrant by adding a pinch of salt for the cloride balance.
2. Balancing Blood Sugar:
Fasting and maintaining mental acuity can be difficult. Most times when people elect to fast, they retreat and restrict themselves from physical activity, work or interaction with others. In this case, many during Ramadan don't have that luxury. When people fast, you'll see irritability, crankiness, lack of concentration, lightheadedness as very common symptoms. These are hallmarks of low blood sugar.
Dates are often lauded for their help in restoring oneself after a long period of fasting because it has two key elements of blood sugar balancing: sugars and fiber. Fiber is vital in those who are diabetic for just this reason- it helps to moderate the amount of blood sugar released in the body. So when thinking about preparing meals to start or break fasts, concentrate on those having a balance of these two. I'd recommend lentil based soups, or you can alternate use of dates with prunes, dried, apricots, or dried figs. All have equal caloric and nutrient profiles best for breaking a long fast and not spike blood sugar too quickly.
Again remember higher fiber foods at suhoor will help sustain you through the day!
3. Nutrient Density
Balancing the nutrient density during Ramadan is vital. Probably the most important concept is making sure foods are nutritionally dense- so be sure to have protein and fiber rich foods in the morning to avoid catabolism of your body's muscle supply as a source of fuel.
The more color the better- choosing foods that have a variety of color will suit your body best in providing a rich source of antioxidants and nutrients. These food are high in fiber and lower inflammation. Think about this when selecting foods at the grocery and when eating. Your plate should resemble the color of the rainbow.
For vegetarians, depend on your mainstays of lentils, tofu and beans for added protein. Quinoa can be helpful, but is not a contender when comparing protein density. I'd always use dense complex carbohydrate grains (brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, faro, and barley etc) mixed with vegetarian protein sources.
In prepping meals, use animal based fats like butter, lard or fats from animal meat- this can be helpful for achieving satiety, but use it sparingly and in conjunction with plant based fats like olive, palm, sunflower, coconut etc. Fats trigger the satiety center in the brain making you feel full and of course making food taste yum!
Cow's Milk/Greek yogurt/ Cottage Cheese are also high in protein and naturally occurring nutrients and a good source of fats for either suhoor and iftar dishes. For those that are dairy intolerant or have an allergy to dairy. Consider goat and sheep as alternates as well as fermented dairy products like kefir and paneer. You can also use homemade almond, cashew, sesame, brazil nut milks and can also use them to make yogurts.
Hope this was helpful for those celebrating Ramadan!