Eat more fruit and salad if you get hungry between iftar and suhour Image Credit: Shutterstock

With fasting extending from sunrise to sunset in Ramadan, it is surprising that rather than losing weight many people end the month a little heavier than they started. A 2011 study published in the Nutrition Journal by Balkees Abed Bakhtomah shows that out of the 173 Saudi families interviewed, 59.5 per cent reported weight gain after Ramadan.

Weight gains can have negative consequences on your health. According to Mayo Clinic researchers, gaining just a few kilos of belly fat could put individuals at a greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. 

Additionally, obesity is on the rise in the UAE due to several factors such as sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy food. According to a 2015 survey by Zurich International Life, 47.5 per cent of UAE residents were overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of between 25 and 30, while 13 per cent were obese, with a BMI of more than 30.

We spoke to Dr Mohammad Tariq, General Practitioner at iCare Clinics, to find out why people gain weight in Ramadan and how they can lose it.

Why do people tend to gain weight in Ramadan?

During Ramadan, Muslims all around the world abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. It has been observed that Muslims tend to gain weight in this month despite fasting an average of 12 hours a day. The reason is a higher caloric intake than usual and less physical activity to burn it. For example, during non-fasting time, Muslims consume large amounts of food at iftar and again at suhour. Additionally, fatty and sugary foods are consumed more frequently in Ramadan compared to other non-fasting months. The variety of food choices, their easy availability at supermarkets, and overeating during non-fasting time of the day contribute significantly to weight gain.

Are there any other factors to consider?

Another important reason for the weight gain is the disruptive sleep cycle, affecting the release of many hormones and chemicals that regulate carbohydrate metabolism and metabolic rate. Frequent invitations from friends and relatives during Ramadan for a big feast at iftar also result in overeating and weight gain.

How should people maintain or lose weight during Ramadan?

Fortunately, Ramadan is an excellent opportunity to adopt dietary modifications for many Muslims who want to lose weight and maintain it. The spiritual and physical practice of self-discipline can help many achieve the weight loss target, for which they have spent hours in the gym and on diet programmes.

So how can we lose weight in Ramadan or at least maintain it? First, by realising that Ramadan is not just about fasting and iftar, but understanding the spiritual essence of the month by controlling hunger and worldly desires.

Second, introducing healthy meal choices at the iftar table as well as at suhour. Replace refined carbohydrates with wholemeal products. Refined carbohydrates include white flour, rice, white bread and sugar while wholemeal carbohydrates include brown flour, brown bread, brown pasta and food that are high in fibre. Wholemeal carbohydrates have low glycaemic index, which means they will be absorbed slowly into your body and maintain your blood sugar level while you are fasting.

What changes should people make in their eating habits in Ramadan?

Here are some basic and simple steps that you can follow throughout Ramadan to lose and maintain weight.

1.      Avoid overeating at iftar and end your fast with fruit salad and non-sugary food items.

2.      Eat slowly and chew every bite of food to the end, which will make you eat less during iftar.

3.      Eat the main course of the meal an hour or two after iftar so your body can digest food without overloading your tummy.

How many hours should people exercise during Ramadan?

I have seen in my practice that people who were previously physically active tend to stop altogether in Ramadan. This results in abrupt weight gain in many due to lack of caloric burn and overeating at iftar and suhour. It is advisable to continue with the exercise but at less intensity and for less time minimising the duration to an hour, particularly with sufficient water intake. If you exercise regularly, work out it after isha prayers as by then you would have sufficient calories from the meal to give you energy and strength. However, if you have not incorporated exercise in your daily routine, you can go for a light or brisk walk after iftar dinner for at least half an hour to maintain your weight.

What to eat at iftar and suhour

1. Replace fried, oily and fatty food with baked items, fresh fruits, salad, dates and a glass of skimmed milk.

2. Have your dinner at least an hour and a half after iftar with a fair portion of vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins to meet your body’snutrition requirements.

3. Replace red meat such as beef with white ones like skinless chicken and fish to include healthy proteins in your diet.

4. Eat more fruit and salad if you get hungry between iftar and suhour. Avoid sugar-based items such as soda and caffeinated beverages.

5. Optimise your fluid intake during non-fasting time by drinking 6-8 glasses of water.

6. After having the main course of the meal at dinner, take a walk for at least half an hour. This will help in digestion as well as burn extra calories that is added from iftar and dinner meals.

7. At suhour, eat a moderate meal with some eggs, wholemeal porridge, fruits, low-fat milk, fruit juice, cereals and salad.

8. Avoid fatty, oily and spicy food at suhour to prevent bloating, indigestion and heartburn.complain of during fasting.