Your Health

Fasting during Ramadan helps feed the soul

Photo of Hoda Al-Naji. HODA AL-NAJI
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, May 3, 2019

Every year around this time, Muslims around the world begin preparing for Ramadan, which is considered to be one of the most important events on the Islamic calendar.

The situation in Manitoba is no different.

According to Statistics Canada, there are about 12,000 Muslims now living in this province. As a result, it may be helpful to know a little bit about the religious and cultural significance of Ramadan to people of the Islamic faith. Understanding what it all means helps us appreciate our diverse population.

As a practising Muslim, let me start by sharing some basic information about this period of spiritual reflection.

Ramadan, which is the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is intended to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad.

Since the Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle, Ramadan occurs at a slightly different date every year. This year, for example, Ramadan starts on Sunday, May 5 and ends on Tuesday, June 4.

During this month, Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset, a period of time which could last as long as 19 hours, depending on where you live. Throughout this fasting period, we are not to ingest anything. No food. No water. No medications.

You might be thinking, “That sounds so difficult!” And you would be correct. It is difficult at times. But at the same time, it is extremely rewarding.

Fasting is faith-based and is meant to strengthen will power, and create a more empathetic and charitable person. It also creates a sense of community, because those who practice Ramadan fast together when the sun is up, and eat together once the sun goes down. Large groups of practising Muslims often get together to break their fasts in Mosques throughout the city. It is also a common practice for friends and families to break their fasts together to celebrate having endured the long fast.

Although going without food or drink all day and then dining at night may seem challenging, it is actually more manageable than you might think.

There are two meals we can enjoy while the sun is down. The first meal, suhoor, occurs prior to the sun rising, and the second meal, iftar, occurs once the sun sets. If we plan correctly, we can receive all of the calories, nutrients, and fluids our bodies need during these meals.

Of course, there are guidelines that explain who should and who shouldn’t fast as part of Ramadan.

For example, children who have reached the age of puberty (nine to 12 years of age) and adults who are mentally and physically healthy enough to fast should do so.

Those exempt from fasting during Ramadan include: menstruating women, pregnant and breastfeeding women, travellers, the elderly, the young, and the ill. Essentially, if fasting will be harmful to health, people can make the decision not to fast.

But if you are eligible and willing to fast, there are some things you can do to ensure you get the nutrients you need. Here are some tips to help you along the way:

  • Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products during iftar and suhoor to help keep the hunger away during the fasting hours and prevent constipation.
  • Break your fast with the most nutritionally dense foods on the table (e.g. lentil soup, green salad, dates dipped in yogurt, etc.).
  • Save the fried goods and baklava for the end of your meal (if you break your fast with these items, you will fill up on sweets and have no room for the nutrients you need from whole foods).
  • Try to limit highly processed foods, such as ready-to-heat packaged meals and processed meats. These foods contain large amounts of sodium, which can increase thirst and make fasting more difficult.
  • Add healthy fats to your meals, as often as possible. Try sprinkling flax seeds, chia seeds, and nuts onto your dishes or smoothies. Eating these healthy fats during suhoor will help energize you throughout the day, and keep you from feeling too hungry.
  • Drink plenty of fluids after your meal to prevent dehydration (water is best!).

Good luck, and Ramadan Mubarak!

Hoda Al-Naji is a dietetic intern with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, May 3, 2019.

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