Egypt has been somewhat distracted over the past few weeks – and understandably so. But as the dust begins to settle on a turbulent ten days, Ramadan in Cairo has snuck up on us out of nowhere. Naturally, all thoughts turn to the lavish fetars and sohours – both at home and around Cairo restaurants – that await us.
The discussion on the detriment of your health versus the benefits when it comes to fasting will rage on. One thing for certain, though, is that fasting requires a special approach to maintaining a balanced and productive month. Here are a few tips to make sure that you eat and live healthy during Ramadan.
What to Eat: Fetar and sohour should be as balanced as possible and should include foods from all the food groups; proteins, carbohydrates, fibres, vitamins and dairy produce. It's always very tempting to dive into big plate of something when the clock gives you the go ahead. But the shock of so much to a hungry and empty stomach won't bode well for even the fastest of metabolisms; eating too much, and indeed too fast, can lead to weight gain over the Ramadan period. Before diving into your meal, drink plenty of water in order to rehydrate your body – this also helps to avoid overindulgence.
Traditionally – and sensibly – fasting is broken with something small; like a date. A warm bowl of soup also helps to prepare your stomach for the incoming meal and sets your metabolic system in gear. Some will open the meal with a warm drink or even a traditional khoshaf – a mixed nut and dry fruit salad of sorts, often soaked in lightly sugared water. Fruit juices, as well as amar el din and karkade, not only rehydrate and revitalise with their natural sugars, but they are also full of essential vitamins that we miss out on during the day.
Complex carbohydrates and fibre-rich foods are digested gradually, meaning they give a slow release of energy and help keep us feel full throughout the day, and also between meals. Sohour in particular should be a light meal, filled with slow digesting foods such as pita bread, rice, lentils or oats. Also, fruit and cereals provide the body with a good amount of fibre to help with regular digestion.
What Not to Eat: Some foods can be detrimental to a healthy fasting process and are best avoided; fast burning carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta can leave you feeling bloated, and have little nutritional value. Deep fried and oily foods are unhealthy too, particularly as our metabolism slows right down over the month. Try baking, grilling or shallow frying instead. Binging on fatty foods like cakes and chocolate isn't a good idea either and although the initial sugar rush is fairly instant, the energy isn't sustainable for the long hours of fasting.
Of course, caffeine based drinks such as Pepsi, tea and coffee are a major no-go as caffeine speeds up water loss and, in turn, dehydration.
Working Out: Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle in any context, but working out during fasting hours is not recommended; sweating means dehydration, and too much of that can be dangerous, in and out of the gym. After a big meal at fetar, you're likely to feel sluggish and lazy, so experts would suggest eating something small, working out, and then eating a bigger meal once you've finished your workout. Gaining muscle or losing weight can be achieved during Ramadan, but only if you're sensible about it. If you just can't wait to dig into that plate of mahshi, take a walk after fetar.
Time to Quit Smoking: Smoking is bad, fullstop. So, why not use the holy month to kick-start stopping completely? For an addict, there's probably never going to be a perfect time to quit, so why not now? Ramadan is a time of reflection, self-discipline and a perfect opportunity to kick bad habits and after all, will-power is half the battle won.
Admittedly, it's more difficult to stop if people around you smoke, so stopping together gives you, and others, the opportunity to support and encourage one another. As well as the obvious, aesthetic benefits – whiter teeth, healthier skin, not smelling like an ash tray etc – there are also endless health benefits. Your body and lungs start repairing themselves immediately and as soon as two weeks after quitting, your energy levels improve; let's be honest, as most of us walk around like zombies during Ramadan, we need as much energy as we can get.
If you're pessimistic about going cold turkey, head to the local pharmacy for advice on replacement nicotine products. Cravings usually arise with certain habitual behaviours; change these like you've changed your eating habits, and remember, cravings usually only last for around ten minutes, so busy yourself until they pass.
Good luck and Ramadan Kareem!