Set intentions. That’s the key message from nutrition, fitness and mental health experts in the days leading up to Ramadan.
Preparing in a mindful manner has a twofold effect: it can enable your body to adapt more easily to fasting and help your mind to reap the spiritual benefits of the holy month.
Here are some tips for preparing for the month.
The week or so before Ramadan is a good time to start mentally and physically preparing for a month of fasting, and to think about what you would like to change or develop, says Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and founder of the LightHouse Arabia. “Think about habits you would like to break or adopt, or the spiritual and grounding practices you would like to incorporate each day.
“Then start writing these things down and begin your journey in small ways from now. For example, if you want to drink less caffeine, engage in gentle exercise every evening, detox from sugar or fried foods, or participate in nightly prayers — start doing that today.
“Also think about small acts of kindness and generosity you can start engaging in. As this becomes more frequent, grow that practice throughout the month of Ramadan and beyond.”
Focus on nutrition
Preparing your body for fasting is crucial to staying healthy, so you start Ramadan feeling energised and ready to embrace its spiritual and physical benefits, says nutritionist Mona Mobarak. “Gradually adjust your eating habits by focusing on nutrient-dense foods and staying hydrated. Also avoid overeating at dinner to preserve energy levels during the day,” she says.
Clinical dietitian Juhi Bhambhaney recommends avoiding foods high in salt and spice, as well as garlic, “as these can affect digestion”, in the days and weeks ahead.
Clinical dietitian Mitun de Sarkar, who is also managing director of meal delivery service Simply Healthy, says preparations can begin weeks in advance. “Start by eating breakfast two hours later than you normally would and dinner two hours earlier. As such, slowly delay all meals until you are able to comfortably manage 16 hours of fasting even before Ramadan.”
ASICS Front Runner Khulood Ibrahim, a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, believes the main prep starts one day before Ramadan, with suhoor. “The pre-dawn meal, which is essential to have before fasting starts, can be balanced with carbs, protein and fat, and include fruits and vegetables to increase the feeling of fullness. Avoid caffeinated drinks to remain hydrated.”
Fasting for diabetics
Being aware of nutrition intake to ensure optimal digestion is crucial for diabetics, says de Sarkar. “People with Type 2 diabetes should visit a doctor a week or two in advance to monitor their blood glucose and HbA1C levels for any change of medication if required.
“If you are a Type 1 diabetic and intend to fast, it is crucial to monitor your blood sugar up to four times a day to mitigate health risks, and adjust insulin doses according to food intake and activity,” she says.
“Diabetics also have to be cautious about not overburdening their body with large, carbohydrate-heavy meals at iftar to avoid risk of post-meal hyperglycaemia. Instead, eat small meals every two to three hours during non-fasting hours: so a light iftar followed by dinner, a small protein-based snack before bedtime and a balanced suhoor.”
Dina Zoa, founder and chief executive of Stretch.com, offers advice on adjusting your exercising pattern in the lead-up to Ramadan. “Opting for less intense workouts and focusing more on mobility, flexibility and core training is a great way to start.
“Preparing your mind is just as important as preparing your body,” she adds. “Look to yoga and meditation, as prioritising your mental well-being can help you maintain motivation, focus and resilience during Ramadan.”
Once the holy month starts, Zoa recommends avoiding intense exercise during fasting hours. “Incorporating moderate exercise after breaking your fast can help boost energy levels and improve overall fitness.”
Effects of fasting on the body
Fasting can also help to cleanse the body and the mind, say the experts.
“Physically, a time-restricted fasting model has various benefits such as body fat burning by reducing the fat storage hormone insulin,” says Bhambhaney. “Some studies have also reported a reduction in LDL or bad cholesterol and inflammation.”
Clinical dietitian Archana Baju from Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi, recommends that those fasting seek out the following “cleansing” foods: fibre-rich fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, lean and plant proteins. Foods to avoid include carbonated drinks, junk foods, refined carbohydrates, calorie-dense sweets and fried foods.
As for the effects of fasting on mental health, Nokhez Usama, a neuropsychologist, behavioural researcher and mental health and wellness consultant, says: “Fasting provides a necessary break for your brain from harmful neurotoxins that may otherwise be experienced in significant amounts. The chemicals and additives consumed by way of unhealthy food and lifestyle choices, pollution, work stress or excessive social media usage can cause inflammation in the brain.
“Neuroinflammation has an impact on cognitive and behavioural functioning, resulting in decreased effectiveness and efficiency. In addition to its spiritual and mindfulness effects, research shows fasting has consistently been associated with decreased neuroinflammation. While the processes involved are complex, it is widely understood that fasting can increase neuroprotective factors, thereby improving cognitive, executive and emotional functioning.”
Taking servicing a car as a metaphor, Usama adds: “Using the wrong fuel for your car and neglecting regular checks can lead to engine damage, while fasting is like taking a car in for maintenance. Use the time to recognise what you need to do to achieve mindfulness.”