Dr. Sherry Nabil Guides us Through Ramadan Nutrition
By Hilary Diack
When Ramadan brings a month of fasting, a lot of questions tend to pop up. Do all family members need the same foods and nutrients? What about my normal workout and exercise routine? Which supplements are helpful in maintaining good health? And do men and women have different dietary needs in the month of fasting? Cairo West Magazine met with certified nutritionist Dr. Sherry Nabil, to gain more insight into how we should be taking care of ourselves during Ramadan.
CWM: Dr.Sherry, is there any scientific evidence indicating a difference in the way women’s and men’s systems respond to fasting?
SN: Studies have clearly shown that fasting has different endocrine effects on male and female systems. Overall, males seemed better equipped to handle nutritional stressors. With females, any degree of nutritional stress through fasting caused increased wakefulness, as if their bodies weren’t as well-equipped to deal with the stress of going without food. While fasting improved insulin sensitivity in male subjects, female subjects saw no such improvement. In fact, the glucose tolerance of fasting women actually worsened. Another study examined the effect of fasting on blood lipids. Women’s HDL improved and their triglycerides remained stable; men’s HDL remained stable and their triglycerides decreased. To sum things up, men and women have inherent metabolic and hormonal differences, and it’s evident that these differences in part determine how we respond to a stressor like fasting.
What are the most important points for women to bear in mind during Ramadan?
You need to maximize your nutrients and stay properly hydrated. If you want to keep up with your fitness program you need to modify key fat-burning and muscle-building hormones in your favor. While you are fasting, you become more dehydrated at rest – but actually less than if you had exercised aerobically for over an hour. Your main metabolic fuel source for bodily function during fasting is mainly fat, which is a good thing. So the goals during Ramadan are to maximize metabolism (even though your metabolism will slow down due to less frequent meals); preserve and enhance as much lean muscle mass as possible (which will inherently increase metabolic rate and allow you to burn more calories at rest); and maximize your workout (both cardio and weight training).
Are there specific supplements that can help women?
Ideally, a well- balanced diet should provide the necessary nutrients, but a specialized women’s multivitamin blend with good levels of B-vitamins, as well as C, D and E, calcium, folic acid, biotin and magnesium should be sufficient backup.
What about maintaining a fitness routine?
Intense fitness programs requiring additional protein supplement input are not really suited to Ramadan, it is recommended to limit cardio workouts to 2 days per week at the most. The best time to do a weight-training workout is not while fasting. This can create way too much muscle breakdown and cause a significant rise in the catabolic hormone cortisol. The best time to weight train during Ramadan is after taraweeh prayers at night. This will ensure that you will have several meals and plenty of water in your system before going to the gym. If this is too late then the next best time to weight train is about 1 hour after iftar before taraweehprayer. You could do a short but intense 30-minute workout. The best time to do cardio work is before sohour. The best thing to do is get up and drink plenty of water with a cup of coffee or green tea, wait 30 minutes and perform 30-45 minutes of moderate intensity cardio work like a brisk walk on a treadmill. If this is out of the question for you, then the next best time to do cardio is approximately 30-45 minutes after a “light” iftar.
What are the best times to eat different foods and how should we stay hydrated?
An ideal iftar meal would start with three dates and water. Nutritionally, dates are very unique in their nutrient content. They contain very high levels of potassium (much more than a banana), a key re-hydration mineral and a special carbohydrate blend that enhances hydration above and beyond water alone. They contain a special blend of glucose and fructose for short and long term energy.
They also have a special nutrient called beta D-glucan, a soluble fiber that can enhance satiety and digestive health. So basically when you eat a date and water for iftar your body gets hydrated again much faster than with water alone. Eat a food meal before taraweeh like chicken breast (or baked salmon), brown rice and some veggies or baked fish, sweet potato, and a garden salad or some steamed vegetables.
Sohour is the time you need to drink plenty of water, eat a good blend of protein, and carbohydrates. Don’t forget to include essential fats, which have many fat-burning and muscle-building properties. Their importance is even greater during Ramadan. Some good sohour foods include: eggs, chicken breast, oatmeal, cinnamon, bananas, dark raw honey, raisins or dates, fibrous vegetables (this will help increase the feeling of fullness as well), all-natural peanut butter, flax seed oil, olive oil – preferably extra virgin (which means it’s cold processed and the essential fatty acids are preserved), and of course, plenty of water. If you are taking a vitamin supplement, this is the time to do it. It is very important to watch your sodium intake at this time as high sodium can cause greater dehydration plus increase thirst during the day – not good for fasters. Avoid high sodium foods like soups, sauces, condiments, gravies, high sodium bread products, and canned meats. Of course eating fried foods and heavy oil items can cause heartburn and problems for you all day so it is best to avoid those if possible!
As men have slightly different nutritional needs what supplements should they add to the above guidelines?
They could add extra Vitamin C and Vitamin E, and protein supplements if they are exerting a lot of energy in their activities and fitness regime. A good quality creatine supplement could be used if they are maintaining a high impact training routine, but under a doctor’s supervision as it can impact the kidneys. Men can also take a BCAA (branched chain amino acid) product before, during and right after the workout to preserve lean muscle. After the workout, also have a nutrition shake with plenty of water.
What are the 5 most important foods to include in our Ramadan diet?
1.Dates – They contain a unique blend of glucose and fructose and have very high potassium content (about 64% more than bananas). They have a nutrient called beta-D-glucan, which is a soluble fiber that has health benefits and can increase the feeling of fullness.
2.Raw, Unfiltered Honey – This contains many phytochemicals and flavonoids that can enhance health. Honey is very good for increasing energy. It is an excellent source of antioxidants and it even has anti-bacterial effects. Take 1-2 tablespoons daily.
3.Fish – Eating fish regularly can have positive effects on health. The fish oils EPA and DHA have been shown to improve brain function, enhance cardiovascular health, and reduce inflammation among other things.
4.Figs – They contain key minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They are also a great source of fiber and can support healthy blood sugar levels. Figs are an alkaline food, which means they help balance the Ph of the body making it less acidic.
5.Olive Oil – Contains omega 9 or oleic fatty acids. It has been shown to increase the good cholesterol (HDL) while lowering bad cholesterol (LDL). It also seems to have some antioxidant effects. Look for extra virgin olive oil (cold-pressed). Cooking with it can lower some of its benefits. Add it to food after it is cooked!