July 10, 2013 11:53 am

Ramadan fasting: Canadian experts provide tips to stay healthy, hydrated

TORONTO — Dr. Ghena Ismail has been fasting for her religion since she was nine years old.

This year is no different: The psychologist at Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, Ont. will begin 30 days of fasting on Wednesday to mark the month of Ramadan.

She joins Muslims around the world who will be observing the Ramadan fast — there will be no food or drink in daylight hours during the annual ritual.

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Islam is based on the lunar calendar — unlike other years, Ramadan is in July at the height of summer instead of during the winter months.

This swap in seasons offers some unique challenges for those fasting: much longer days and warmer temperatures that toy with hydration levels and thirst moreso than in the colder months.

Dr. Ismail and Cleveland Clinic Canada registered dietician Nicole Springle offer their tips to manage the month-long fast.

Stay hydrated

Making sure you don’t get dehydrated is much more challenging in the summer, Springle said.

“It certainly creates a lot more difficulty than in the winter when you’re not losing as much through sweat and breath and the days are shorter allowing more time to offset,” she said.

Men, on average, need to drink about three litres of water — or 13 cups — while women need to consume about 2.2 litres, or nine cups a day.

That’s easier to do when it’s spaced out during the day, though. And these are only guidelines, if you plan on exercising during Ramadan or you work outdoors in the heat, your fluid intake may need to be higher to compensate.

Springle’s suggestion is to drink as much water as you can before, during and after your meal times after sunset.

Ismail starts her meal with a glass of water. She keeps a jug of water at her bedside so that she sips on it before bed and if she wakes up in the middle of the night.

“Some people don’t even get thirsty — they can go through the whole fast without getting thirsty,” she said.

Ismail avoids caffeine while fasting and Springle says that’s a faster’s best bet — the caffeine will only add to dehydration.

Break your fast carefully

“Breaking the fast in itself, people need to be mindful of how they do it. It is about gradually breaking the fast,” Ismail advises.

She begins with water, small appetizers like soups, light salads and yogurts and even dates before dinner.

She said some observers of Ramadan eat, then pray and return to their mealtime.

Read more: Gallery: Ramadan around the world

Springle suggests consuming fast-acting carbohydrates to get your digestive systems running. That’s why dates have gained popularity in Ramadan fasting — they’re high in sugar but nutritious with magnesium, potassium and fibre.

Whole foods like fruits or fruit juices can also help in digesting fluids and electrolytes, she says.

Make your meals count

Ismail tries to eat a balanced diet even when she isn’t fasting.

Springle suggests that while fasting, there are some foods that can help you go the distance.

“You really want to be ensuring you’re taking in meals with low sugar, and high complex carbohydrates because these foods stay in your system longer,” she explained. That means you’ll be less hungry during the day.

These power foods include whole grains, like barley, wheat, oats; legumes, like lentils or beans; and fresh produce like fruits and potatoes.

Protein rich sources — lean meats, fish, eggs, milk, nuts or seeds — can also help to stabilize blood sugar levels, which in turn can help curb cravings and hunger pangs.

Read more: How Muslims around the world celebrate the month of Ramadan

Pair each meal with a couple glasses of water to ease digestion. The water also helps with meals because the natural electrolytes in the food on your plate — sodium, potassium and magnesium, for example — can help draw in the absorption of water in our kidneys, Springle said.

Try to fit in a meal before sunrise

With the sun rising at as early as 4 a.m. and setting by 9 p.m., some people fast for more than 16 hours. It’s important to pace yourself when eating your first meal of the day, Ismail said.

“The challenge is not just the heat, but the hours are longer,” she said. In the winter, fasts could begin at 6 a.m. with sunset arriving by 4:30 p.m.

Springle suggests breaking your normal three meals down into two meals — one eaten when breaking your fast in the evening and again in the early hours before the sun rises.

Try to avoid processed foods. The faster your body breaks the meal down, the sooner you’ll get hungry, Springle explained. That means that a sugary breakfast cereal may need to be swapped for oatmeal in the morning.

Vitamins aren’t necessary if you’re following your fast with healthy, nutritious fare.

Read more: 5 healthy fast food swaps

Springle said that while it’s traditionally thought that people lose weight during Ramadan, in some cases they gain weight because they don’t eat moderately when breaking the fast. The goal is to maintain weight.

“If you do it right, you can sustain your energy,” Springle said.

For Ismail, she prefers not to interrupt her sleep for a second meal. Because she makes conscious choices with her dinner, she says she can thrive on her dinner for the rest of the following day.

Don’t push yourself

Pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are ill are exempt from fasting, according to the Qur’an.

That also extends to children, and seniors or adults who have health problems or rely on oral medication that they need to take during the day.

Ismail said that people shouldn’t push their bodies too far during this time.

“It’s a misconception that you cannot break the fast. You are defying your body and that is not good, spiritually speaking. You have to respect the boundaries of your body,” she said.

Those who are too sick to fast at all can compensate by paying what’s called “fidah” — the equivalent of about $10 a day to help feed the poor.

Read more: Gallery: Ramadan around the world

The fasting is meant to teach willpower and feel compassion for those who are less fortunate, Ismail said.

“I fast because it is a religious duty. It is a way of strengthening one’s will, one’s commitment to one’s faith and spirituality and feeling with the poor, those who don’t have the ability to eat,” she told Global News.

- With files from the Canadian Press

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2013

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