How to keep healthy and hydrated this Ramadan

One of the many joys of becoming a member of the Baha’i Faith is the opportunity I’ve had to experience the benefits of sunrise-to-sunset fasting. In addition to its spiritual benefits (allowing us to cultivate self-discipline, and to make more time for quiet meditation), fasting has been shown to contribute to physical good health. According to Oxford’s Dr. Razeen Mahroof, fasting exonerates toxins which build up over time in your body fat. The process even increases the level of feel-good endorphin hormones in your blood, which can have a positive impact on mental health. Furthermore, there’s some evidence that fasting for periods of 2-4 days (longer than the sunrise-to-sunset fast imposed upon Muslims and Baha’is during our holy months) benefits your immune system, causing your body to recycle redundant and damaged immune cells and replace them with new ones.

For this reason, I think that everyone should give serious thought to joining Muslims in experiencing the benefits of fasting this Ramadan. Nonetheless, anyone who has fasted will know that staying healthy and hydrated can sometimes be a challenge. This is especially true in the summer when the days are long and many of us have exams to contend with.

You should be aiming to get as much sustenance and nutritional value from your food as possible.

That’s why I’ve compiled some tips on how to avoid feelings of faintness and dehydration when fasting, based on evidence from nutritional science. This article contains three of those tips, excerpted from a much longer series of four articles that I’ve written for TheMuslimVibe.Com. The original articles touch on topics that aren’t included in this abridgement, so I encourage you to take a look.

Tip #1: Drink milk instead of water at your dawn meal (suhoor).

Studies have shown that the fluid content of a drink of milk is retained by your body for much longer than the fluid content of a similar sized drink of water or juice. Actually, orange juice performs slightly better than water, but not nearly so well as milk (skimmed or full-fat).

Milk’s nutrient density is thought to be the reason for its long-term hydration benefits. Milk is rich in vitamin B12, protein, iodine, and electrolytes: a particular set of minerals that includes sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate. Our stomach empties more slowly after we drink something rich in vitamins and electrolytes than it does after we drink water, keeping us hydrated for longer.

If you aren’t fond of cow’s milk (or are intolerant to it), it’s worth experimenting with soy milk or other plant milks, especially those that are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals. Many brands of soy or other plant milks have similar nutritional profiles to cow’s milk. Try to look for brands fortified with the electrolyte minerals: sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate; fortification with other vitamins and minerals is a bonus.

Fasting exonerates toxins which build up over time in your body fat.

Tip #2: Get into the habit of drinking water at room temperature rather than ice cold, especially before iftar (evening meal).

During the limited time when you can eat during the month of Ramadan, you should be aiming to get as much sustenance and nutritional value from your food as possible. This requires that your digestive system be as efficient as possible. There’s good evidence to suggest that drinking cold water interferes with the efficiency of your body’s digestive system in a way that drinking warm water does not.

There is little evidence, however, that supports the suggestion that drinking warm water at the same time as eating a meal interferes with your digestion of the food. So go ahead and enjoy a mug of tea while eating your iftar! There’s even some evidence to suggest that drinking ginger tea at the same time as eating a meal might improve your digestion.

Tip #3: Select foods that are low in GI for your dawn meal (suhoor).

‘GI’ is an abbreviation of ‘glycaemic index’, which is a number that measures how long it takes for the carbohydrates in a foodstuff to be digested and released into the bloodstream as sugar. A GI of 100 corresponds to an instant sugar hit; white bread can have a GI as high as 95. The lower a food’s GI, the more slowly it releases energy into the body. Thus substituting high GI for low GI carbohydrates at suhoor will mean that the meal sustains you for longer, guarding against feelings of faintness later on in the day.

White flour has a high GI, as do white rice and potatoes – although waxy ‘new’ potatoes have a much lower GI than floury ‘old’ potatoes, and long-grain white rice has a much lower GI than short-grain white rice. In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss some of the low GI alternatives to white bread, white rice and potatoes.

Green bananas, a.k.a. plantains. Green (i.e. unripe) bananas have a GI value of 30 – lower than any other starchy carb. Green bananas can be fried, boiled, added to curries and more – any way of cooking the green banana will preserve its low GI value.

Brown rice, red rice and black rice. Brown rice, red rice or black rice can be used in any recipe in which you’d usually use white rice – although cooking times do vary across the different varieties. As well as packing far more nutrients than white rice, and being blessed with a deliciously nutty flavour, brown rice has a GI of 62, compared to a value of 72 for long-grain and 90 for short-grain white rice. Red rice has a slightly lower GI of 56. But black rice is in a league of its own, with a GI of 42. If you’re going to stick with white rice, then make sure to look out for ‘parboiled’ or ‘converted’ rice. This cooks, looks and tastes exactly the same as ordinary rice, but has been pressure-steamed before processing to give it a longer shelf life. This has the unintended consequence of reducing the grain’s GI by as much as 30 percent. (‘Converted’ rice should not be confused with ‘easy cook rice’, which has none of the same benefits.)

Oats. Uncooked jumbo oats have a GI of 55. Size matters: more finely processed instant porridge oats have a GI when raw of 75. Cooking oats into porridge increases their GI, although the size of the increase will depend on the cooking method. Specifically, porridge made in the microwave will have a lower GI than porridge cooked on the hob, because stirring oats causes them to break up and to absorb more water, which raises their GI.

Pasta. The carbohydrate structure of pasta gives it a much lower GI than bread. Brown pasta performs better than white, and thicker pasta shapes (like linguine) perform better than thinner pasta shapes (like spaghetti).

Pot barley. Pot barley is the unprocessed form of barley. Pearl barley is the processed form, with the outer hull removed. Just as with rice, the less processed form of the grain (pot barley) has a much lower GI value. Pot barley can be used in stews, casseroles or risottos, and – when cooled down – in salads.

Sweet potatoes. Despite tasting much sweeter than ordinary potatoes, sweet potatoes have a lower GI. Use them for baking, roasting, mashing or currying in any recipe that calls for ordinary potatoes.

That wraps up my list of low GI alternatives to white bread, white rice and potatoes. I hope that you’ve found the three tips in this article helpful.  To everyone fasting this Ramadan, I wish you a healthy fast!