On the cusp of another Ramadan, the upcoming month of fasting demands we physically and mentally prepare ourselves if we have any chance to getting through those first few days without a pounding headache.
What you choose to eat and what you cut back on in the days leading up to the start of Ramadan will make a big difference in how easily your body slips into fasting.
What not to do is simple enough, and I know this because I’ve been fasting now for more or less 30 years. I’ve made all the mistakes, and I’ve made them often.
Rookie mistake? Indulging in an epically large, calorie-heavy meal the night before Ramadan starts, complete with decadent dessert. You’ll wake up on the first day of the holy month feeling both sluggish and listless.
Here’s what else I’ve learned. Don’t eat as much as you can in the lead up to Ramadan, just because you’re telling yourself that you’re going to be fasting soon. And once Ramadan starts, don’t gorge yourself on everything your heart desires every time you break your fast, as if food will disappear and you will be left with nothing but water and stale bread. Refrain from drinking endless cups of coffee or smoking additional cigarettes in the days leading up to the fast to make up for all the caffeine and nicotine you’ll be missing in the hours from sunrise to sunset.
That kind of behaviour will only increase your appetites and make it that much harder to fast.
Instead, here are some proven, healthy ways to prepare your body and mind for the fast so you can face up to the rigors of a month that, although hard and taxing, offers a beautiful, spiritual opportunity to reset.
Observe a few voluntary fasts, pre-Ramadan
Think of the voluntary fasts as test runs, or a way to get in some practice before the big day (Ramadan Day One). The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) used to fast in the month leading up to Ramadan to prepare himself. Muslims often fast on Mondays and Thursdays leading up to the holy month, or on the “white” days of each Islamic month, so the 13th, 14th and 15th. These voluntary fasts have been proven to help prepare your body for the upcoming period of abstinence, as well as help you make up any missed days in Ramadans past. They help in shrinking your stomach and curbing your appetite, preparing you for the 30 days of fasting ahead. Also, research is increasingly indicating that this kind of intermittent fasting is good for you.
Stop snacking pre-Ramadan
Everything you’ve ever heard about increasing your metabolism by eating small, frequent meals throughout the day to keep hunger at bay? That approach will backfire with Ramadan just around the corner. Stick to three main meals, and while you’re at it, have your breakfast as early as possible, your lunch as light as possible, and your dinner after sunset if you can manage it.
Curtail the caffeine and cigarettes.
If you’re a coffee lover, then the first few days of Ramadan are synonymous with a pounding headache. Start reducing your caffeine intake as early as possible. Switch to decaf now, if you can, or at least dramatically taper. And if you’re a smoker who has to contend with withdrawal symptoms during the fasting hours, such as irritability, anger, restlessness, impatience and difficulty concentrating, then this is as good an excuse as any to quit. In addition to coffee and cigarettes, during the week leading up to Ramadan, cut back on tea and carbonated drinks too, and you just might manage to keep that migraine at bay.
Book that check-up.
If you’ve been ignoring a persistent toothache, now is the time to book your dentist appointment. If you’ve been feeling lethargic and out of sorts, schedule an appointment with your family doctor, and ask to have your iron levels checked as well as any necessary bloodwork. If you’re living with a chronic disease such as diabetes, or take medication to manage your high blood pressure, or anything of the sort, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before the start of the month, to make sure you approach the fast in as healthy a state as possible.
Plan your Ramadan meals and stock up
You do not want that first day of Ramadan to dawn with an empty pantry and freezer, nor do you want to face the grocery store on an empty stomach. Meal-planning before the start of the month arrives can not only save you a lot of hassle, but set you up for a month of healthy choices.
Paying attention to what you eat is just as important as how much you eat during the month of fasting, and can mean all the difference when it comes to your energy levels. So instead of stocking up on sugary snacks and salty treats to indulge in, once you break the fast, consider planning your menu around more plant-based options, and shop for a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts and wholesome grains that can feel light on the stomach and assist the body in breaking the habit of needing heavier food to feel satisfied.
Modify your exercise regimen.
Fasting can slow down your metabolism, making it hard to remain fit and continue to burn calories as you usually would. Some people combat this by adopting a more gentle exercise routine during the month of fasting. Consider walking or training right before breaking the fast, so you can limit how long you’re thirsty for. Swimming and yoga are also great, low-impact options.
Featured photo Unsplash
Hala Khalaf is a freelance journalist and mom of two living in Dubai, who has written extensively about health and diabetes.