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Dubai: Just a couple of days into Ramadan, Muslims across the world have started observing 11 to 16 hours of fasting daily. Since the holy month focuses on self-sacrifice, introspection and prayer, this could also be a time for those who are fasting to get a reset on their mental and physical health.

Click here for Ramadan prayer timings in UAE and Gulf countries

We’re talking about the many purported health benefits of intermittent fasting – the most common iteration of which is 16:8 (16 hours of fasting). This is close to the average number of hours people will be fasting during Ramadan. In the UAE, the fast will last from 13 to 14 hours throughout the month.

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But there are some caveats.

Ramadan usually lasts for 29-30 days, depending on when the moon is sighted to determine Eid Al Fitr dates. During the daily fasts, Muslims stop eating and drinking at Fajr (at sunrise) and will only end the fast by sunset.

The benefits

A researcher at John Hopkins who studied intermittent fasting for 25 years, Mark Mattson, wrote that the method leads to ‘a longer life, a leaner body and a sharper mind.’

Mattson’s research showed that the changes start taking effect after two-four weeks of following the regimen, and that most people don’t go back to old patterns of eating because of how ‘good’ they feel.

Intermitten fasting
TYPES: IF (intermittent fasting) has different versions: there’s the Circadian Rhythm Fast, 16:8 Fast, 5:2 Fast, Alternate-Day Fast, Ramadan Fast. When done right, IF leads to real benefits. IF simply means reducing your food intake, eating only during a specific time. Experts now point to the possibility of “reversing” Type 2 diabetes — by following a whole food, low-carbohydrate diet and intermittent fasting, which will fix insulin resistance. Many have done it already. Following are the known IF benefits, as per human and animal studies:

The idea is that once the body is done using glucose stores for energy throughout the day, it turns to fat stores for energy consumption leading to better health markers all around. While the focus of many following the method is weight loss, multiple research papers show that weight loss with the method is comparable with other diets that have a focus on calorie deficit.

Rather than weight loss, research has shown improved verbal memory, longevity and increased insulin sensitivity as major benefits.

What to eat

However, to feel great and reap the benefits of the method, the meals that follow the fast have to be healthy, or at least healthy-ish. It is also important to start the day right – especially since there is no water intake during the fast duration in Ramadan.

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Suhour – or your first meal of the day is therefore very important. The focus should be on the perfect meal – which is a good proportion of complex and fibre-filled carbs, healthy fats and protein – along with hydration ahead of the fast. Eggs, fava beans, avocados, nut butters, whole grains, yoghurt, labneh are some of the options that would be best. Include smoothies that have nut butters, greens such as spinach, bananas, chia seeds to get a healthy boost for the day.

The best combination is that of complex carbs, healthy fats and lean protein for suhour and for iftar.

Iftar is when Muslims end their fast and traditionally this is done with water and a couple of dates. Ideally, the meals in the window until the beginning of the next day’s fast should be paced. Water intake is key, and try to avoid fried foods, salty foods and simple carbs.

Fried, very sweet and/or salty foods can dehydrate you over the night and through the next day. Caffeinated drinks are also the same, so consume these in moderation.

Fasting and exercise

Like with all routines, getting used the new norm of fasting is the first step towards making sure you’re at your optimum level of strength to start an exercise routine during this month.

Given that fasting can lead to dehydration and lack of energy, working out after iftar might be the best option for most. This would also help in dealing with the glucose spikes and bloating after ending your fast with a heavy meal. A brisk walk, strength training or a high-intensity workout – do something that you love so you can sustain it throughout the month.

Find the workouts that work best for your mind and body. The key is finding something short that you like doing so that maintaining the routine is easy.

For endurance athletes, exercise before ending their fast might be the best option. Or if you’d rather finish your workout with a refreshing drink of water and the end of the fast. Some may prefer a morning workout, before suhour. Yoga is also a great option for early morning workouts or pre-iftar workouts and will not exhaust you ahead of or during the fast.

Make sure your workouts are short and as with all workouts, experts recommend listening to your body and taking rest if and when required.