People worldwide begin to observe Ramadan this month. This important Islamic holiday commemorates the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a time of fasting and spiritual reflection. Muslims across the globe observe the month of Ramadan by abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. The month-long observance is an opportunity for Muslims to focus on their faith and connect with God.
Ramadan also provides a time for Muslims to give back to their community by fulfilling additional religious opportunities such as late-night prayers and charity work. And for many Muslims, Ramadan is also a time of reflection, joy, and celebration as everyone comes together with family and friends to break their fasts each evening. This year, Ramadan begins on April 2 and ends on May 2.
More About the Customs and Month of Ramadan
More than one billion people practice Islam, which means many people celebrate this holy month every year. Islam is based on the teachings of the Quran, which Muslims believe was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by Allah (God).
While there are many different sects of Islam, all Muslims share certain beliefs and practices, including prayer and fasting during Ramadan. For example, most observe the Five Pillars of Islam, of which fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is the fourth. Here’s a bit about each one:
The Five Pillars of Islam
- Shahada: A declaration of faith.
- Prayer: Those who practice Islam pray five times a day.
- Zakat: Being charitable and giving to those less fortunate.
- Fasting: The holy month of Ramadan is a time of fasting.
- Pilgrimage: Those who practice Islam make the pilgrimage to the city of Mecca at least. once in their lifetime if they are financially and physically able to.
Fasting During Ramadan
As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, fasting is seen as a way to purify the body and soul. Muslims believe that Ramadan is a time when Allah forgives their sins and rewards them for their good deeds in magnitudes.
While Muslims fast by abstaining from eating any food or drinking (even water), they are also supposed to abstain from smoking, sexual activity, and impure thoughts from sunrise to sundown during Ramadan.
Children who haven’t reached puberty, the elderly, the sick, those who have blood pressure, cholesterol, or other health conditions, and pregnant or breastfeeding women are allowed some flexibility during this time. They will often help feed the poor or engage in charitable activities if they cannot fast.
Many Muslims will eat before the sun comes up with a pre-dawn meal called the suhoor meal. After dusk, they will break their fast with a meal called iftar. Iftar meals are often huge meals shared with friends and family to celebrate breaking their fasts.
Traditional Ramadan Foods
While people often think of Ramadan as a time of withdrawal or abstinence, it's also a time of celebration and community gathering. One of the best ways to experience Ramadan is by indulging in the traditional foods served during this month.
From sweet treats to savory dishes, here are some of the most popular Ramadan foods you will find at the iftar meal:
- Mehchi Koussa (stuffed vegetables)
- Dried fruits
- Meshtah bread
- Plenty of water
How to Stay Healthy During Ramadan
Fasting can be great for some, but not everyone’s body is the same. Fasting without understanding what works for your specific needs can take a toll on your body. So, it’s essential to consider the best ways to prepare for the fast before the sun comes up and how to healthily break it during your iftar meal.
Fasting for such long periods can be hard on your body even if you don’t have health conditions, but it can be more challenging if you have any. If you have a health condition, it’s best to consult with your doctor before you begin fasting during Ramadan.
Recent research shows that Ramadan fasting may not affect overall glycemic variability. Breaking your fast at iftar can cause large surges in your glucose levels. This study was focused on the safety of fasting during Ramadan for people with type 2 diabetes. The study found that carbohydrate consumption was higher in subjects during iftar, contributing to the extreme spikes in blood glucose.
For many people, this can be a difficult time to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. Remember that it’s best to incorporate whole foods and maintain a balanced diet throughout the year, especially during Ramadan. Here are some lifestyle and nutrition tips to help you stay healthy during Ramadan:
- The most important way to stay healthy during Ramadan is to discuss the effects of fasting on any health conditions. Consult a doctor and nutritionist or registered dietitian before you begin.
- Eat low GI (glycemic index) food for your suhoor meal. These foods will digest more slowly due to the higher fiber content, and result in a slower more steady release of nutrients and glucose that may help keep your energy levels sustained as the day progresses.
- Make sure that you hydrate before the sun rises. Dehydration can cause side effects like headaches and fatigue.
- When you break your fast, start with small amounts of food and be patient while your stomach registers this food. Starting with delicious sweets and fried food can be tempting, but it’s best to avoid them. Stick to tradition, and break your fast with dates to replace sugar, fiber, iron, and magnesium in your system. Remember that it takes your body approximately 20 minutes to register how much you have eaten. So, going slow when beginning to break your fast can help you better identify your hunger and fullness cues as they present themselves.
- If you have diabetes and want to fast during Ramadan, first consult your doctor. You may need less insulin or have to take other precautions before, during, and after the fasting period.
- If you struggle with diabetes or blood sugar imbalances, consider using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) during Ramadan to identify your blood glucose levels and trends. Continuous glucose monitoring can help you see if your blood glucose levels are reaching dangerous points and may be able to help you prepare for your day better.
- Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your suhoor and iftar meals to get in crucial vitamins and nutrients and the fiber your body needs after a fast.
- Eating unsaturated fats for suhoor, like avocados, unsalted nuts, fish, and olives, can help you maintain your energy and feelings of fullness throughout the day until iftar.
- Listen to your body. If you begin feeling ill or weak, consult with your doctor about how you are conducting your fast.
- Make sure that any medications you’re taking are safe to take with or without food so that you can continue to care for yourself safely throughout Ramadan.
A Glucose-Friendly Ramadan
While some of these examples are not particularly traditional foods, our dietitian, Isra Bashiti, demonstrates some glucose-friendly examples of suhoor and iftar meals. Here's what she recommends:
"Typically for a balanced suhoor meal, I like to make sure I’m hydrated by drinking water and electrolytes throughout the night and before sunrise, especially if I plan to be physically active.
For suhoor, I like to start with a big bottle of water. Then, I usually aim to have a bigger meal with a good balance of protein, carbs, fiber, and healthy fats. It can look like this: one date, three eggs with half of an avocado, seasoned with salt and pepper. I'd follow this up with a bowl of chia seed pudding with collagen, hemp seeds, and berries. It usually fills me up and sustains me well throughout the day.
When breaking my fast, traditionally, we have a date followed by water. If I have Medjool dates, I like to have just one date since they are higher in sugar, and our body tends to be more sensitive to carbs on an empty stomach. To blunt the spike, I also try to have the date with nuts inside, like almonds. Then I take about 15 minutes for prayer and drink some more water.
Since this meal is usually later in the evening, I like to focus primarily on getting in protein and non-starchy vegetables and making this meal lower carb. It typically includes chicken or grass-fed beef tacos with salad or wild salmon on top of cooked and cooled quinoa (making it a resistant starch). I combine this with a big bowl of arugula! Soon after that, I like to have some tea before heading to prayer!"
— Isra Bashiti, MS, RDN, LDN
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Natalie received her degree in Dietetics from Mansfield University and a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition from the University at Buffalo. Her career has included nutrition education and program development in her local community, adjunct faculty at several collegiate institutions, and clinical nutrition in both inpatient and outpatient settings.