Healthy eating during the Holy Month of Ramadan
May 9, 2019 | 11:31 AM
by Gautam Viswanathan

In an era when fruit and vegetables are being steadily replaced by fried food and fizzy drinks, it is up to all of us to be on the lookout for what goes into our mouths. Not doing so could have a pretty severe impact on our health, particularly during Ramadan, when many of us in Oman fast throughout the day.

While eating greasy, fried food during other time of the year is to be avoided, indulging in them during the Holy Month is a definite no-no. You have had nothing to eat since the break of dawn, and your stomach is looking for something simple to digest, after having been empty for more than 12 hours.

To feed yourself unhealthy food will only shock your stomach into life – an action that could have untold negative consequences, both immediately and in the long-term.

This Ramadan, we speak to dieticians, fitness experts and nutritionists in the country for advice on how to have a Holy Month that is healthy, happy and safe for both you and your body.

After your body has been through the trials of fasting throughout the day, it is only natural for you to reach for comfort food...a cold soda sure does sound great, but you’re in for plenty of harm if that’s going to be one of the first things you have after breaking your fast.

Khezia Resma is a dietician at Burjeel Hospital in Muscat, and says that the short-term benefits of junk food – if any – are far outweighed by their long-term harmful effects.

“What you can get from junk foods are high calories provided by the high concentrations of fats and sugars,” she said. “Most junk foods are carbohydrate-rich, particularly when you’re talking about chips made from potatoes, starch, corn or flour. In excessive amounts, these promote weight gain, considering the manner in which they’re cooked which is mostly through deep frying. Very rarely do junk foods contain vitamins and minerals. If so, they are negligible as compared to the adverse consequences one can get from eating these foods.”

In addition, Fahad Al Abri, a fitness trainer in Oman, also explained that during the Holy Month, it was important to eat foods that had a high amount of liquid content, such as cucumbers and watermelons, because they had enough fluids to keep you going throughout the day. This was particularly important when people broke their fast at the Iftar meal, traditionally had at sundown once the evening Maghrib prayers have concluded. This year, Iftar in Oman is likely to take place at about 6:40 every evening.

“In the summer, always have food with high liquids to stay hydrated during the day,” he advised. “Don’t break your fast with a heavy meal. Always break your fast with a light meal such as dates and laban, some soup, something light for the stomach, so that you don’t shock your body. Two hours later, you can start exercising, and then, before you sleep, if you want to eat a meal, have it maybe two hours minimum before you sleep. Not less than two hours, and not more than two hours prior.

He added: “The best thing is to stay hydrated, because Ramadan involves fasting during the summer for long hours, and your body needs water to function. We encourage people to be active, but not too active, because you need to conserve your energies. Having something decent and high with liquids. You are looking at healthy options – oats and grains – but if you want heavy dinner, have it at least two hours before you sleep.”

According to the World Health Organisation, a healthy Ramadan diet includes plenty of water and hydrating food, with plenty of liquids to be taken between the Iftar and Suhoor. In countries like Oman, where high temperatures can make you lose fluids through perspiration, people need to consume at least 10 glasses of water.

The WHO also says that caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and cola need to be avoided. On average, people will be likely to fast for between 15 and 16 hours during the Holy Month. When temperatures are high, it is important to remain in a cool and shaded place.

“Junk foods are actually a general term referring to foods which are normally calorie dense due to high content of fat and sugar but have no nutritive value. This include instant foods such as canned goods, noodles, chips and even fast-food items. The term junk food is not limited to food alone, but also includes drinks like soft drinks and artificial juices high in sugar. Moreover, usually people tend to be addicted to salty and sugary foods which are common to most junk foods.

She added: “There are many problems you could develop as a result of this. The first is weight gain which can lead to obesity. Hypertension and dyslipidaemia may be developed as well due to high sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat content. Elevated blood sugar levels may also cause Diabetes Mellitus type II for those who prefer sweets. Some may also develop kidney stones and urinary tract infection with excessive consumption of foods high in sodium, including addiction to carbonated drinks like sodas.”

Nutritionists also recommend guideline for Suhoor, the meal that takes place before the daily fast. This is particularly true in the case of older people, expectant mothers, adolescents, children and nursing women. This meal, which is essentially a light breakfast, must contain plenty of vegetables, carbohydrates, protein-rich foods and eggs.

Sweets, however, must be avoided, as they contain large amounts of sugar syrup, further causing dehydration. The recommended sweets for those who do want to indulge their sweet tooth would be fruits such as watermelon, oranges and other seasonal fare.

Fahad Al Abri advised: “The problem we have here is that people have a big Iftar, and that is a disaster for the digestive system. It is going to stress your entire stomach, you will feel like you want to sleep, and that is when people fall into the pattern of wrong eating habits. You want to keep your activities medium to low during the day, and when you break the fast, do so with something light. Something like dates and water or dates and laban. This is something that has a medium amount of sugar, and is high in fibre, so this will help keep your stomach intact.

“Look for meals that are less processed,” he explained. “One of the problems we have here is that people eat heavy amounts of fried food, and food that is high is salts and sugars. Ramadan is a time of fasting, and light food should be eaten when your break the fast. Your health must be taken into consideration. In the summer, always have food with high liquid content to stay hydrated during the day. Don’t break your fast with a heavy meal. Always break with a light meal such as dates and laban, some soup, something light for the stomach, so that you don’t shock your body.”

Sports coaches in Oman have provided details on keeping fit during the month, by finding the right balance between eating safe food, and exercising in moderation.

Shiv Gupta is a cricket coach who works with players in Oman. He often gives advice on how those who play sports can continue to do so during Ramadan. Advice that can be followed for any sports one plays.

“We always tell people not to eat heavy food and come for practice,” he revealed. “There has to be at least a couple of hours’ gap between the meal, and the practice. They should have a lot of liquid in their diets. During Ramadan, we do not keep any sessions during the fasting hours. We only keep it after about 9pm. As a sportsperson, I always advise people to have small portions multiple times, instead of a heavy meal. Always avoid heavy fried foods and extremely starchy carbohydrates. We always advise them to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

In addition, Chuck Martini, head coach of the Muscat Football Academy, has many players from Oman and the other Arab countries who continue to train during Ramadan as well. While adults are more capable of taking on the rigours of Ramadan, children need to be gradually introduced to it, because their bodies are still developing.

This makes the daily fasting routine and nightly training sessions a delicate balance, and Chuck – himself a father of three children – had advice for all young children, irrespective of the sport they played.

“We have quite a few players who fast,” said the former Leicester City and Morocco international goalkeeper. “It is actually good for the body, although it is not advisable to train when you are dehydrated because it is really hot outside and doing that could cause serious problems to the body. After one is fasting, don’t pile on greasy, heavy foods which would then react with the body and so on.

He added: “We normally advise the children to not take gallons and gallons of water, but sip it through the evening and at night time. Breakfast itself should be of light consumption, maybe a soup and some wholemeal items such as porridge which have fibre. We normally advise some sort of grilled protein with the vegetables for the main meal. You can have pasta or rice as a form of carbs for the body to sustain itself during the day.”

Fahad Al Abri added: “In terms of keeping your fitness up, it is going to go back to your energy levels and how you are going to eat. Your activity in the daytime is supposed to be medium to low, not high, especially for the first two weeks, because your body is conditioned to take two weeks to get accustomed to the fasting, so keep your activity levels low. As you go into the Iftar, break your fast, and then, once you have your energy levels, aim for exercises that offer medium levels of muscular strength and also, cardio, but nothing really heavy.

“The aim of any person who really wants to improve their fitness is that people should aim to maintain their fitness,” said Fahad. “To increase your fitness during such a period of fasting will actually lead to stress levels going higher. Even maintaining your fitness is difficult, because you are not eating anything the whole day, and as the sun sets and Iftar comes, you are trying to push yourself. I advise everyone to eat in a balanced way.”

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