Continuing on with our Ramadan Chronicles mini-series (check out Part 1 if you haven’t had a chance to see the start), we’ll be jumping into the topic of hydration and nutrition. To start off, I wanted to talk about spirituality compared to productivity in Ramadan. A recent article I read productivity talked about how being spiritual and being productive are not mutually exclusive.. In fact, the article encouraged that the purpose of Ramadan is to explore your full human capacity,including spirituality, physicality, and sociability. By doing so, you maximize your overall spirituality as it breathes into all facets of your identity.
The point to be had with nutrition is to balance having quality productivity across spiritual, physical,and social areas. Trying to focus too much on ‘gains’ can leave you missing out on the point of Ramadan. At the same time, going overboard with the spirituality, at the detriment of your physicality will leave you exhausted. Pushing two extremes is in most cases, useless. You end up losing big on both ends of the spectrum.
In fact, one year, I decided to say whatever to nutrition for Ramadan and it left me wrecked. I neither ate right nor trained. By doing so, I had set myself up to only focus on spiritual activities without any care for my body’s needs. In that month, I lost 30 pounds.
Looking back, I joke at that Ramadan’s experience as a slogan of:”Guaranteed to lose 30lbs in 30days!. Better than any fitness infomercial you’ll ever see!” That extreme had me struggling to get through the last 10 days of the Holy month. I couldn’t even maintain the level of spiritual activities that I had sacrificed other things for. By focusing on one thing only, without maintaining a standard in nutrition and health, I ended up reaching short of my goals in the very area that I was sacrificing everything else for. To add to the experience, I got sick for almost a week after I had finished fasting.
With that experience, I approached the next Ramadan with a focus on being more productive in my physicality. Going to the gym a few times per week, coming home, and eating high-nutrient foods, I was feeling comparatively better than the year before. I’d never felt that good. Yet, I was struggling with my spiritual goals. I was taking so long food prepping, that I couldn’t make the progress that I wanted on my spirituality. At least in comparison to the previous year. Effectively, I had pushed myself to another extreme, focusing too much on the physical and not enough on the spiritual. At the end, although I did not get sick physically, I felt spiritually empty for lack of ground made in developing spirituality that Ramadan.
Learning from both of these experiences, I’ve gradually been working on fine-tuning the balance between my personal spirituality and physicality with each passing Ramadan. You get a little better idea with each year but it’s never perfect. This is the the never ending climb of self-improvement.
In fact, the individuality of self-improvement is a lot like how Socrates described the balance between a person’s physicality and spirituality. The balance is refined like a fine thread, gradually being tightened over the years to the appropriate tension. This quantity of tension is different from person to person.
Now here are the details of what I’ve learned from Ramadan over the years on nutrition and hydration:
1. In Ramadan, don’t stress too much about food. Seriously.
If you’re spending more time thinking about and preparing food MORE than your spiritual goals, you’re thinking way too much. Dipping into a bit about Ramadan again, one of the premises of this month is to temporarily make impermissible what is normally permissible. By doing so you work towards self-actualization. Check out Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The most fundamental needs are food, water, and shelter. When we fast, we tap into the bodily mechanism of wanting to end that food craving or thirst. Ramadan doesn’t try to deter meeting that need, it creates an environment of delayed gratification. By restricting the need for food and water via delayed gratification, Muslims hope to gain a better control of the higher needs that are highlighted by Maslow’s hierarchy. Not just higher, but the highest as spirituality and self-actualization can be closely inter-related.
Re-directing that angst of food and thirst towards: relationships, personal projects, careers, and directly spiritual activities engages Muslims to treat food as a source of fuel. You take a step back to take two steps forward.
2. Never Eat till you want to Puke
This is a staple in any situation, but is more so during Ramadan. You’re spending half, if not two-thirds, of the day restricted from food and water. Pigging out is not going to help. You WILL get sick very quickly. Believe me, having an upset stomach, where you get even more dehydrated, is not how you want to be spending Ramadan.
3. Make Sure to Get Enough Fiber
This is generally, about 10g of fiber per 1000 calories, or around 25 g for the average person. If you’re more active, than you add accordingly. Fiber will aid in satiety and ensuring things stay ‘regular’. With a combination of nutrient dense fruits, oats, avocados, beans, and lentils, you can easily get an adequate amount of fiber in to make sure everything moves smoothly along the canal.
4. Eat enough Carbohydrates to Fuel your Lifestyle in Ramadan
Carbohydrates are the macro-nutrient that is our primary fuel source. However, you’ve got a time constraint along with (generally) a reduced activity level (unless you are a competitive athlete and a strict training schedule). Making sure that you fill the time you have to eat with quality, nutrient dense carbohydrates is very important. Sugary drinks and desserts may give you carbohydrates, but unless there is a high output required (say you’re endurance training), than it isn’t to your benefit.
On a quick note, endurance athletes consume multiple types of carbohydrates (glucose and fructose) to maximize their total body glycogen (how carbohydrates are stored in the body) stores. In their long bouts of endurance training , these athletes need to top up both liver and muscle glycogen BECAUSE their training stimulus will cause the body to tap into both liver and muscle stores of carbohydrates for fuel. The average person, even if they are trying to stay active, are not going to require such a carbohydrate intake to necessitate using all of the various metabolic pathways to process ingested carbohydrates. For this reason, most people should try to limit their simple sugar intake from sugary drinks and desserts.
So what does that leave you to fuel with?
Potatoes, squash, rice, grains (its not bad unless you are actually intolerant), are all great sources of replenishing carbohydrate stores. Some of them may be more efficient than others. This is anecdotal, but I’ve found potatoes to be very satiating compare to rice or pasta. Actually, I’ve found consuming 100 grams of carbohydrates from potatoes to be much more satiating than the same amount of carbohydrates from rice or pasta. If you’re trying to retain as much of your performance as possible, this higher satiation from potatoes might play a factor as you try to consume enough carbohydrates to fuel your activity WITHOUT feeling nauseous from eating. Try playing around with how you respond between different carbohydrate sources.
Hydration goes for both from what we eat and what we drink. Making sure you drink enough water is a given. Losing 1-2% of our bodyweight in water can lead to dehydration symptoms. Now, since you’re purposely putting yourself into this situation, you have to take extra care in the time that you are allowed to consume food/water to ensure rehydration for the next day. You’re doing yourself no favours from a health point of view nor from a spiritual point of view if you get dehydrated due to lack of care. You have to control what you can control to the best of your ability.
With that, make sure you’re drinking water and consuming foods that hydrate you. Fruits and vegetables are a great thing to incorporate as part of this. For one, they’ll develop a habit of eating nutritious vegetables that you can take outside of Ramadan. Another point is, that although proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, ensure energy replenishment, tissue repair, and joint lubrication, it’s the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc) that streamline those metabolic processes in our bodies. When you’re getting adequate micro-nutrients, you feel alert and are able to stave off fatigue better than if you let your micro-nutrient intake fall below baseline.
6. Take Care of Your Gut
In this period of irregular eating, ensuring your gut stays healthy goes along with eating nutritiously. Eating foods that maintain or provide a precursor to beneficial gut bacteria is one way of keeping your gut healthy. Consuming plain yogurt, miso soup, saurekraut, and kimchi are just some examples.
At the same time, ensuring that you don’t throw random food down your mouth as soon as you break your fast is a good habit to keep. Break your fast with potassium-rich dates (as is customary in the Islamic tradition) and eat a salad with some fruits. Really simple things. Moreover, taking a break before having a regular meal is also something worth trying to help alleviate some of the stress on the gut.
Supplements in Ramadan can be a great convenience, especially when you’re short on time to get your nutrition in. However, as the name says (and most people forget) they are to supplement your diet. Supplements will not carry the same diversity in nutrition as whole foods. As they’re suppose to do, things like Vitamin D, fish oil, and whey protein are to seal the cracks in your diet.
BUT, if you find yourself being reliant on supplements at a detriment to whole-foods, then it might be good idea to try not using supplements in Ramadan. I’ve personally experimented with doing this and have found that I was able to still get quality nutrition in and in fact, feel more satiated.
8. The Reality of Appetite Reduction
I wanted to save the most important realization of eating and hydration in Ramadan for last. The fact is, you will experience some level of appetite reduction as the weeks go on. Again, from personal experience, no matter how strong I started the month off, I just couldn’t force myself to eat the same amount of food in the last week compared to the first.
Neither did I WANT to force myself. That would mean taking away from the goal of this month. A shrinking stomach is a reality. However, that shouldn’t mean that you should just stop caring. If you want to continue training, being relatively active, and overall productive, than you’ve got to create habits (as outlined above). You’ve got to hold onto as much of your appetite as you can without forcing food down your throat. At the end of the day, it is only 4 weeks out of 52 weeks of the year.
To wrap up,
Lastly, this article is mostly my personal experience with very little hard science reported for it. With that, take it with a grain of salt. It is my experience and if something seems interesting to you from it, then it may be beneficial to you or it may not. Leave a comment if you have any questions check in later this week for the third installment in the Ramadan Chronicles series.