A Pakistani Muslim man rests at a mosque during Ramadan in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2015. (Bilawal Arbab/European Pressphoto Agency)
Allow me to bring you into my world for a moment. For the next few weeks, I will wake up every morning at around 3:45 to eat some food and drink as much water as I can stand. By 4:15 a.m., give or take a few minutes, I will stop eating and drinking, and will begin a nearly 16-hour complete fast — no water, no food, not even gum. Then I’ll try to get a couple hours of sleep before starting the rest of my day.
Fasting diets are all the rage these days, but I’m not doing this to lose weight, though I hope I will. I’m doing this because it’s the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. From May 26, through June 25, this will be my challenge, and the challenge for hundreds of millions of others who will also be fasting.
In many Muslim-majority countries around the world, businesses will slow down, government offices will close early, families will gather every evening to break their fast together. In some places, people will stay up late into the night — some praying, others socializing — and sleep into the day. But for millions of American Muslims, life will continue on as normally as possible: work, school, kids’ activities. And while this month is meant to be a time for spiritual reflection and renewal, I am really anxious about how I’m going to get through the next few weeks.
Guests gather around chafing dishes in the kitchen of Tariq Rehman and his wife, Sonia (left), when they host a small iftar to break fast for Ramadan in 2015 in Fairfax. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
I have a demanding full-time job and two young kids who do not understand the meaning of “sleeping in.” I’m worried. How can I make the best out of Ramadan while still fulfilling all of my responsibilities? Throughout this month, in this weekly journal, I will talk to dietitians, athletes, spiritual leaders and other experts to help me answer that question.
But first, the basics.
The fast lasts from dawn until sunset. If you live in South America, your fast will be as short as 10 hours. If you live in the northern parts of Asia, it can be as long as 21 hours. For me, living in Washington, it’s 16 hours.
Every year Ramadan is 10 days earlier than the previous year because it follows a lunar calendar. Eventually, when Ramadan falls during the winter and the days are shorter, my fast will be only 10 hours, like skipping lunch. But that won’t happen for another decade or so.
You don’t have to fast if you are pregnant, nursing, sick, traveling, or on your period. So if you see one of your colleagues who has been observing Ramadan walk in with a cup of coffee in her hand, don’t ask her why because now you know.
I’ve been fasting every year for the past three decades, with the exception of those years I was pregnant or nursing. This is my first year back after a two-year break. It’s not easy. But there are ways to make it more manageable. For tips, I spoke with nutritionist and dietitian Nour Zibdeh, who is based in Northern Virginia. She has developed an online workshop to help Muslims have a healthy month. An edited excerpt of our interview follows.
Every morning I drink two cups of coffee to get my day started, and 3:45 a.m. is just too early to do that. What can I do to minimize the effects of caffeine withdrawal?
I love my coffee, too, and that is the hardest thing for me during fasting, or one of the hardest things for me. If you can sleep in, take a nap, because there will be headaches. That’s basic chemistry. If you’re used to caffeine, there will be caffeine withdrawal headaches, and so you just have to take it a little bit easy that day and give yourself sometime to rest.
So basically you’re telling me I just have to put up with the withdrawal and adjust?
I mean, I know some people who will take Excedrin, which has caffeine in it, at 3 in the morning. But then you’re just reinforcing unhealthy habits. If you are that dependent that you can’t function without caffeine, this would be a good time to detox.
Lack of water and dehydration will also lead to headaches. I try to drink lots of water when I wake up in the middle of the night, but I don’t feel like that stays in my system for too long. So how should you make sure your body is sufficiently hydrated during these long summer days?
You break your fast at around 8:30 p.m., so you have around seven hours to hydrate. And if you need to drink eight to 10 glasses a day, then you just have to spread them out. Of course you’re not going to wake up every hour to drink. So usually at iftar (breaking of the fast after sunset), I will fill up my water bottle, so that’s about 16 ounces of water. And then between 9:30 and 11 p.m., drink three more cups, and right before you go to bed, drink more water. So you have to load up during iftar, and that’s actually why you have to be smart about what you fill up on. If you eat watermelon or grapes or apples, these are things that are high in water, and will make you feel hydrated. Whereas if you eat fried food and dessert, then you just fill up without water.
What foods should I avoid?
Fried foods and sweets and, for some people, spicy food. Because if you break your fast and you’re not used to spicy food, and your stomach has not been working for 16 hours, and the first thing you hit it with is spicy kebab, or hot sauce or chutney, that will give you heartburn. I’m not opposed to sweets altogether. Even in Ramadan, I recommend the 90/10 ratio rule: 90 percent of what you eat should be healthy, hydrating, nourishing. Then leave yourself room for three bites of something like desserts or fried foods.
Breaking your fast with dates is a tradition. But is that what you would recommend from a dietitian’s perspective?
Yes, absolutely. Dates have fiber, potassium and magnesium in them. Potassium has electrolytes, so that helps with hydration. Dates also help you get your blood sugar back up after 16 hours of fasting.
I have gained quite a bit of weight after having my second baby. Is Ramadan a good time for me to try to lose that weight?
I think it is very possible to lose weight in Ramadan because you’re already not eating for 16 hours of the day. It’s possible to lose weight if you make the right choices at night. Let’s say you break your fast with three dates, drink a cup of juice, eat some appetizers: You could easily consume 1,000 calories in just an hour if you don’t slow down. So what people should pay attention to is eating one date, break your fast with water, eat a healthy meal, avoid the fried foods. Avoid desserts late at night. Your body will burn fewer calories throughout the day because you tend to move less. So you still have to be healthy. You can’t go and eat 2,000 calories at night and assume that just because you haven’t eaten all day that you can do that.
What about exercise?
If you have been exercising already, and you have a workout schedule, you go two or three times a week, you can probably maintain it. You definitely want to lower the intensity. If you’re going to work out while fasting, then I would recommend working out at 7 or 7:30 p.m., bring it down a notch and then you’ll be able to refuel an hour after your workout.
If you are sedentary, have a desk job, and don’t usually work out, it’s probably not the best time to start. You can go on walks before iftar if it’s not too hot or humid. That is a way to get your activity level up without overexerting your body.