The Best Foods to Keep You Energized During Ramadan, According to Dietitians
Fasting has made some pretty significant headlines in recent years, with physicians, dietitians, and nutritionists touting the health benefits of safely refraining from food and water for a particular period of time. But religious communities around the world have been mastering the art of fasting for centuries. For example, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Mormons, and Muslims all engage in particular fasting practices, guided by their own set of beliefs. For these communities, abstaining from food and drink may be more about achieving a heightened sense of spirituality than optimal health, but they are great examples of the various ways people fast across cultures and belief systems.
One such example is the holy month of Ramadan, when over two billion Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire month. This can be pretty intense on the body and is not recommended for pregnant or menstruating people, children under the age of puberty, those with compromised health (i.e. diabetes), or those who are generally too weak to engage in this practice.
Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, Ramadan falls at a different time every year in the Gregorian calendar. This year, Ramadan will start around April 2 and end around May 2 with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (when there are really great foods to be had!).
Because a month of fasting is quite intense, it’s super important to have nutrient-dense, whole foods during the non-fasting hours, which are basically through the evening until just before sun rises. Generally, there are two main meals during these times: iftar, or the breaking of the fast, and suhoor, or the meal before the sun rises.
I asked two dietitians who also fast during Ramadan what people should eat during these meals to optimize energy, and these are their professional recommendations.
Hina Jawed, who holds a degree in nutritional sciences and genetics, advises, “At iftar, it’s important to include faster-digesting foods in meals that ‘restore energy’ since the window for eating is tiny. These foods can be made of a combination of proteins with high absorption factors such as fish, eggs, skinless chicken, nutritious carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, and good fats like olive oil.”
She also recommends foods with high water content. “Watermelon, grapes, apples, cucumbers, and celery will help to keep you hydrated and replenish vitamins and minerals, and can be a great addition as snacks after breaking your fast.” She adds that some of the benefits of consuming whole foods, specifically for fasting, is that they are generally rich in potassium and magnesium, which aids in hydration and restores electrolyte balance. They also have a low-glycemic index, meaning they will help you feel full for longer and improve both your mental and physical performance.
Sumiya Khan, a nutrition strategy manager for a national food management company, cautions, “Carbohydrates are what provide you with energy, but eating simple carbohydrates like sugary cereal or white break during suhoor will leave you feeling hungry and tired shortly after.”
This is particularly important advice for those times you walk into the kitchen half-awake to have a pre-sunrise suhoor meal and want to grab anything that’s quick and convenient. It’s also why it’s important to prepare accordingly.
Khan adds that if you combine protein with fiber-rich whole grains, your body will gradually digest your suhoor, helping you feel fuller, staving off hunger, and keeping you energized for longer. Examples of whole grain carbohydrates include whole grain breads, bagels, naan, tortillas, brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa.
I’ve been saying for years in my Ramadan posts that I feel fantastic throughout the day when I have leftover meat or eggs at suhoor, and Khan confirms that adding protein to your suhoor will ensure you feel satiated for longer during your fast. What’s even more fascinating is that “protein also provides the amino acids your brain needs to function at its optimal level,” according to Khan. A morning meal high in protein raises your brain’s tyrosine levels, which also produce norepinephrine and dopamine — neurotransmitters that give you energy and make you feel awake and alert.
High-protein foods these experts recommend you add to your menu include: eggs, Greek yogurt, beans, lentils, fish, chicken, and nuts.
So, before you head to the grocery store to stock up on foods for this month of fasting, here are the categories to put on your list: protein-rich foods, whole grain carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fasting from food and water for the majority of the day for 30 days straight is a challenging task indeed, but it’s not meant to hurt your body — it’s intended to recharge and reset you physically and mentally. If done properly by following the advice of experts and organizing your kitchen well ahead of time, you’ll be set up for success right from the start. Inshallah.