Fasting tips for a healthy Ramadan

Gorging on food as soon as the sun sets, and eating the wrong foods, should be avoided, say experts

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ABU DHABI // The eve of Ramadan brings the annual debate about the effects of fasting on one's health.
But doctors and nutritionists agree that if Muslims do all they are supposed to, the month becomes one that is both physically and spiritually cleansing.
Daylight in the first few days of fasting this year will last almost 15 hours. Even by the end of the month, the days will be 14 hours long, with temperatures of 45°C or possibly higher.
"This means that people have to make a real effort not to revert to the typical bad habits in Ramadan and try to do it right in order to stay healthy," said Dr Sulaiman Habib, a family doctor in Abu Dhabi.
Gorging on food as soon as the sun sets, then spending the evening snacking on nuts that are high in calories and make you thirsty is bad for anyone's health, Dr Habib said.
"It is little wonder that by the end of the month, many have gained weight and are worse for wear," he said.
"Iftar meals are often heavy and high in carbohydrates, and people eat countless servings of desserts all night, forgetting all about fruits and vegetables."
To make matters worse, people spend their evenings inhaling shisha smoke in tents with poor ventilation, Dr Habib said.
"There needs to be constant awareness about what constitutes a healthy Ramadan because if the fast is not done correctly, then it will have a negative impact on health, rather than the positive impact that it could have," he said.
Health authorities have been giving lectures in the past few weeks on how to have a healthy Ramadan.
Daman, the national insurance company, and the Dubai Health Authority addressed diabetics on remaining active during their fast and being aware of portion control.
Seha, the Abu Dhabi health services company, will run two campaigns to provide healthy lifestyle tips for the month.
"Ramadan can offer a number of health benefits, especially when people monitor their dietary intake and ensure the maintenance of any medication regimens they are on," said Khalifa Al Ketbi, the deputy chief of operations at Seha.
It is not a time to worry about losing weight but it can be a time to adopt healthy habits, said Dana Shadid, a nutritionist.
"By cutting out junk food, eating three balanced and healthy meals - one at iftar, one five hours later before sleeping and then one at Suhoor before sunrise - and drinking plenty of water, Ramadan is a step towards a healthier lifestyle," Ms Shadid said.
Dr Mohammed Al Qubaisi, the grand mufti at the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department in Dubai, said those who are fasting should take the opportunity to rid themselves of habits they do not like.
"A smoker usually cannot stay away from it for a long time, but in Ramadan all of them manage to stay away from it for a long time until they break their fast," he said.
"This is repeated daily so by the end of the day, this feeling of achievement should be used to get rid of any habits."
Dr Richard Stangier, a consultant in internal medicine at Al Rawdah German Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the risk of dehydration and dizziness during fasting makes fluid intake vital after breaking the fast.
"When fasting, glucose levels will generally drop down and with it energy levels," Dr Stangier said. "Fasting can also affect the metabolic rate, leading to biochemical reactions while the body burns it own fat, which produces toxic end products."
Staying hydrated with water, not sugary juices, is the only way to battle that, he said.
And skipping the suhoor meal before the morning Fajr prayer is the worst thing a person can do, Ms Shadid warned.
"Many people find it hard to wake up but eating just one large meal a day is very bad for one's lipid profile - the amount of fat in the blood," she said.
"Having some cereal, or a fruit and yogurt, or food with a low glycaemic index which slowly releases energy and keeps hunger pangs at bay for longer is imperative."
But all of this is easier said than done.
"If we all spend the month as we should, not making the big issue be the food but instead the prayer and the closeness to our Creator, then you wouldn't see such a popularity of sweets during the month and find that most have gained weight after 30 days of fasting," Ms Shadid said.
"What's ironic is that Ramadan provides so much opportunity to feel better, especially after the first few days of withdrawal, and only if the effort is made to drink plenty of water in the hours when the fast is broken."
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