As some of you may know, tonight marks the beginning of the Islamic holiday, Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and it is during this month that Muslims everywhere participate in daily fasting, from sunrise until sunset. This abstinence from eating and drinking during the daylight hours serves to purify the soul, focus one’s attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice. Ramadan is a time for self-revaluation and peace by not only refraining from food, but also refraining from evil thoughts, words, and actions – it’s a purification process which encompasses all aspects of the mind, body, and soul.
Since I do not practice Islam, I am rather lacking in the advice department regarding how to best practice Ramadan most devoutly. However, there is one aspect of this holiday that caught my attention, and that is that during this period of fasting, many Muslims tend to gain weight.
Gaining weight while you are fasting sounds like a huge contradiction. Shouldn’t you lose weight if you aren’t eating? Well the answer is obviously no, hence why I am writing about this today.
In order to get a better idea of how this weight gain might come about, let’s look at a typical day of Ramadan:
- The day begins with a pre-dawn meal, called suhoor, which is eaten (typically around 4:30 am!) before the fajr prayer, or “dawn” prayer.
- Fasting begins, and everyone must carry on with their normal routine, but without food or drink.
- At the end of the day, most families will reconvene for the maghrib or evening prayer. After, they break the fast at sunset with dates and milk.
- Now it’s the meal everyone’s been craving all day: iftar. Typically a buffet style meal, iftar features a feast of traditional islamic dishes and most importantly, a bounty of delectable desserts.
- The day ends with a voluntary prayer, called Taraweeh, typically around the late evening (depends on where you are, but let’s say 15 mins till 9 pm).
Here’s where some problems might arise in this schedule:
- If you can’t eat throughout the day, you’re going to feel hungry, grumpy, tired and depleted of energy, and the last thing you’re going to want to do is go for a jog. And you’re probably going to be way too tired to workout in the middle of the night, especially after that big iftar meal. However, fasting can not be an excuse for laziness – if you want to avoid weight gain, exercise is going to have to happen one way or another.
What I recommend:
- Try to embrace the morning workout. After a night’s sleep and your morning suhoor meal, you’re going to have the most energy to workout out at some point after the dawn prayer. Depending on what your day is like, you probably have some time between prayer and the start of your day since you’re up so early – instead of going back to bed try to do something to get your blood going, even if it’s low-impact yoga. A morning workout will also help give you that energy boost you need as you begin fasting for the day.
- Your sleep schedule is going to get a little thrown off during Ramadan, especially if you’re the one preparing all of these meals. Some people even wake up or stay up later during the night to get a another meal in so they have their “3-square meals.” Lack of sleep or a disrupted sleep schedule can be one of the biggest contributors to an enlarged waistline. Also, you’re eating at such irregular times, or times when you wouldn’t normally eat. Disrupted sleep combined with an abnormal eating pattern can throw your body a bit off balance, which can lead to out of whack hormones and disturb your metabolism, hence weight gain.
What I recommend:
- Get as much sleep as you can. You’re already going to be grumpy from not eating, don’t make it worse by staying up for that midnight snack. Instead of taking that lunch break in the middle of the day, take a nap! It’s not like you can use that time to eat anyway. Whatever sleep schedule you decide on, do your best to keep it consistent for the next 30 days – your body loves routine, so even though you are throwing it off it’s normal path during Ramadan, at least make your new Ramadan schedule a routine.
- This is the big one. After an entire day of fasting, come iftar time, your body is not only going to begging for food, but it is going to be begging for two things in particular: carbs and sugar. You probably feel like you could eat an entire tray of baklava by yourself – even if you’re a “health-conscious” person, the last thing you’re going to want after fasting is a nice big salad. Nah, you’re like Pass the pita PLEASE and keep it comin’. You’re like, I wanna make a meatball sub out of luqaimat and pita bread.
What I highly recommend for iftar:
- Drink a big glass of water before you eat anything. After not drinking all day, this is more important than that food you want, believe it or not. It will also help take the edge off of your appetite a little so you don’t feel like you could dive head first into a pool of curry. Even though you feel like you want all of the bread and all of the sweets, do yourself a favor and have some meat. Your body needs dense calories from protein that will fill you up. It’s easy to polish off a couple dozen pieces of pita with hummus or pop a few puff pastries filled with something rich and creamy. Stick to protein and starchy veggies to fill you up – you’re much less likely to polish off an entire lamb than you are a plate of basbousa. And if you’re looking for something to snack on, go for nuts. Nuts are very calorie dense and will keep you feeling full, just try not to eat the whole bowl.
- Slow it way down. Don’t go all Kobayashi on a plate of lamb kebobs. Eat a few smaller meals over a longer period of time – yes, this does involve a little work on your part in the self-control department, but I promise your metabolism will thank you if you eat a little bit at a time.
What I recommend for suhoor:
- Give yourself time to eat. So many people find that they don’t have enough time to get in a proper meal before morning prayer, and so they find themselves in a panic, stuffing every last morsel of food they can find in their fridge before the call to prayer and the start of the day’s fasting. If you want to keep it healthy, you’re going to have to get up with plenty of time to prepare yourself something – it’s one of my keys to being a successful paleo, you are going to have to plan your meals, and take the time to make them. I can’t stress enough how much you should incorporate protein into your morning meal. This will keep you much fuller throughout the rest of the day. And when I say protein, I don’t necessarily mean meat, I look out for my vegans. Have nuts, beans, lentils – I know these don’t seem like typical breakfast foods, but it’s going to be your best bet for delaying those hunger pangs.
You aren’t going to like me for this one but…
- Avoid dessert. I know I know. Desserts are a huge part of Ramadan and they are sooo good. Baklava, qatayef, basbousa, cakes, cookies – we all want like five of each. Maybe pick one special night where you treat yourself to a few of these delicacies, but if you are really worried about weight gain, say bye-bye baklava.
- One of the reasons all of these desserts are so harmful especially during Ramadan, is that shortly after you enjoy these sugar-loaded delights, you will most likely go to bed in order to get enough sleep. Since you’re sleeping, none of this sugar gets burned off, and the body only knows how to do one thing with this sugar overload: turn it into fat.
The key to fighting binge eating is really being very conscious. It’s going to take a lot of thought and control on your part, and being very deliberate about what you put on your plate. That’s in a sense what part of Ramadan is about, being mindful – mindful of what you say and do, mindful of your thoughts- and that should translate to being mindful about what you eat even in the face of intense hunger. So take a few deep breathes when you first gaze upon that beautiful iftar feast, the food’s not going anywhere, so calm down.
Now it’s time to get into some of my own recommendations for what to eat during Ramadan to keep it a healthy, but also filling, experience.
One of the most filling paleo recipes I’ve made, which I think would fit right in with some of the flavors of Ramadan, was Butternut Squash and Yam Curry from The Roasted Root, which I served over a bed of cauliflower rice and topped with grilled chicken. This dish had so much flavor and was so filling, no one at the table could finish their plate. This dish has those nutrients you’re going to need after a day of fasting – protein from the chicken, and the right kinds of complex carbohydrates from the root veggies and cauliflower that your body really craves. Not to mention it’s warm and packed with such flavorful spices, it will feel like a big bowl of comfort to turn your grumpy mood right around. This needs to be on your iftar table this year.
Let’s talk couscous.
Couscous is a pretty big part of Ramadan meals. Unfortunately, couscous is made with wheat flour, and is therefore not paleo. I think cauliflower is going to be your best bet for making much healthier Ramadan meals in the form of cauliflower “rice” and cauliflower “couscous.”
Here’s some side dishes for you to try:
Paleo Mom’s Moroccan-Inspired “Couscous” Salad
Note the cashews in there – these are the kinds of dense calories that are going to keep you feeling full and satisfied aka why this side dish is a winner winner iftar dinner.
Stupid Easy Paleo’s Pineapple Cauliflower Rice
For when you want to add a little excitement to other-wise pretty plain rice.
Let’s talk meat and stew.
Some very popular meat dishes involve lamb or some type of beef stew. There’s also so many yummy stews which are filled with great veggies and spices – I’m going to make them as paleo as possible.
Definitely want to try Stupid Easy Paleo’s Lamb Kofta
Stupid Easy Paleo’s Curried Beef Stew
One of the problems with many curry dishes and stews is that they are thickened using creams, flours, and broths. When making paleo stews, use full-fat coconut cream if you want to get that same thickness, and when you are picking your broth, really look at that ingredient list. Try to buy organic broth if you can, and pick the one with the least amount of added ingredients.
Borderline Paleo’s Lamb Sausage “Spaghetti” with Almond “Pangritata”
For my vegans, try some Moroccan Lentil Soup
I would eat this as a paleo because I’m totally pro beans and I’m not gonna apologize.
Paleo Leap’s Chicken Biryani
To keep this dish truly paleo, I would skip the chickpeas. If you feel it’s lacking, try adding some butternut squash or serve it over cauliflower couscous.
Let’s talk hummus and pita bread.
Paleo Pita Bread. Done.
So now that you have pita, we can make Fattoush!
Try this recipe.
And while we’re on the topic of salads, I think this Berry Salad would be great to combat your sweet tooth. Instead of quinoa, I would sub some avocado.
OR this Jicama-Orange Salad
Let’s talk I’m hungry and all I want is fried goodness.
So maybe your whole house smells like baking phyllo dough and you’re really hungry and you still only want to eat things that rhyme with flaklava.
My advice for you is to call on my good friend, the plantain.
In one of my previous posts I showed you guys plantain chips done two ways. Well, I have a feeling my cinnamon + honey plantains might help ease that sweet, crispy goodness you crave.
These plantains taste so good when eaten hot and fresh out of the pan, and plantains are nice and filling, so they will help keep your sweet tooth satisfied but also satisfying your tummy at the same time.
In the mood for some honest to goodness french fries? Plantains can do that too. Try these Baked Plantain Fries with Garlic Avocado Dipping Sauce.
Finally, let’s talk dates.
Dates are eaten during Ramadan to break the fast. And following tradition, you can still have a nice glass of milk with your dates, just sub in either almond, cashew, or coconut milk. Or, if you’re really hungry, try these Paleo Date & Nut Energy Bars. You’re still getting your traditional dates and the added bonus of getting a little extra somethin’ with the nuts, so you don’t go busting through the wall like the Kool Aid Man to get to iftar. These would also make a great quick meal if you are in a rush when you wake up in the morning before fasting begins.
Also, if the dessert table is really getting you down, try these Raw Brownie Bites that are packed with dates. You might not feel so left out when everyone has a mouth full of cake.
Also, I want to give a quick shout out to my friend Hakeem who gave me the idea for my post today – Ramadan Mubarak, buddy!! Hope this post makes your journey happy and healthy. Or at least gives you some food pics to look at all day 😉