how to have your healthiest Ramadan ever
The Holy month is closing in, and I’m sure many of us have started preparing for what’s to come. It feels like Ramadan comes and goes quickly, so it’s important to spend some time in advance thinking about how you want to organize your schedule. You sleep, worship, and eat differently, likely spend more time at the masjid and with your family, and hopefully attempt to make positive changes to your life. How can you have your healthiest, most successful Ramadan ever? Luckily for you, you’re reading this! Below, I give you my best tips for a truly revitalizing Ramadan in order of importance: worship, diet, sleep, and exercise.
Ramadan can be a good time to improve your health, as fasting has well-documented health benefits (1, 2, 3, 4). However, I think people often get distracted by the health/weight loss opportunity they see and forget to prioritize worship. I included this section because I think worship is absolutely the most important aspect of Ramadan. We should spend Ramadan renewing our commitment to our faith and leave it feeling spiritually invigorated. Personally, I want to complete the holy month feeling closer to God and more mindful of my blessings and purpose.
Set a meaningful, realistic goal: I preface this item with “meaningful” because the point of reading Quran (for example) isn’t to whiz through its entirety in thirty days. The point should be to derive a lesson that we can incorporate into our lives for the rest of year. Study a chapter of the Quran and write about your reflections. Give up something materialistic. Commit some time to volunteer work.
Focus on everything but the physical fast: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "Whoever does not give up dishonest speech and evil actions, God is not in need of his leaving his food and drink." In other words, divert your focus from your planned meal or the desire to eat, and ditch bad habits like gossiping, complaining, lying, and giving into anger.
Complete your five daily prayers: Many struggle with completing five prayers a day, which is central and critical to worship. Make sure to prioritize them if you struggle, as well as any other religious obligation you should master. Don’t focus on all the extra things you can incorporate if you still have difficulty establishing the foundation of worship. It’s okay to struggle, but necessary to keep trying!
Learn something new: Don’t worship on auto-pilot. Cultivate your understanding of Islam by meaningfully engaging with the Quran, attending lessons, and reading religious texts/scholarly work. My personal suggestion is Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Quran.
It is essential to maintain a healthy diet during Ramadan. I’m a huge advocate for a whole-food, plant-based diet; see: 4 reasons to switch to a plant-based diet and Islam and veganism. Curious about where to start? Check out: how to start eating a whole-food plant-based diet. Though we fast from dawn until sunset during Ramadan, many people gain weight by the end of the month because they overindulge when it’s time to break the fast. Compounding this problem is that get-togethers and community iftars are common, which bring with them unhealthy options. I deserve this, you think, after having fasted all day. However, not only are you making the next day’s fast harder by indulging in junk food, you also don’t reap the health benefits of fasting. Dr. Michael Klaper writes that “the key to lasting health is not the fasting, but the quality of the diet after the fast.” In other words, wrapping up a 16-hour fast with an oily meal and sugary dessert likely won’t leave you feeling healthful and vibrant.
In order to stay energized and focused, stick to a healthy, plant-based diet: How could eating oily/sugary/processed foods make the next day’s fast more difficult? They stimulate your brain’s “reward center,” triggering a release of dopamine. As these foods become a regular part of your diet, your reward system becomes deadened, and like addictive drugs, more is needed to achieve the same effect. After quitting, you’ll likely experience withdrawal-like symptoms: fatigue, irritability, and cravings. Therefore, when you break your fast on fried, oily food and regularly indulge in sugary dessert, you spend the next day’s fast exhausted and hungry. Though my personal experience isn’t a general template, my fasts on a plant-based diet have been the easiest I’ve ever experienced - no hunger pangs, exhaustion, or cravings. For those of us who will have to follow through on major commitments like work and school during Ramadan, maintaining a healthy diet is central to staying energized and focused.
Plan your meals to stay on track: During Ramadan, it’s extremely difficult not to encounter temptations. Meal planning is essential - especially if you’re busy. Every week, write down what you plan to eat each day. If necessary, begin cooking before Ramadan begins, and freeze food so that you don’t need to make snap decisions about what to eat. Personally, I plan to prepare overnight oats to eat before Fajr, and I will use a combination of whole-food plant-based meals from MamaSezz/my own pre-prepared, frozen cooking for iftar.
Be choosy about what you eat at gatherings: Don’t throw caution to the winds when you attend an iftar. When I eat at the masjid, I plan to bring my own food and pair it with any available plant-based options. If you’re making a dietary change this Ramadan, let your friends and family know, and offer to bring a dish when you accept someone’s invitation.
Eating “just a little” doesn’t work: The more you give in to your cravings, the more challenging it becomes not to indulge. This is a direct consequence of the fact that high-sugar, high-fat foods trigger a release of dopamine. Stick to fruits for dessert, which are packaged with fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, do not eat oil, and do not eat processed foods. Personally, I don’t eat meat at all, and I suggest that those who do restrict consuming it to once a week.
Treat eating healthy as a form of worship: Above, I stressed the fact that worship is the most important facet of Ramadan. I believe eating healthy isn’t just something to do in parallel with strengthening our faith - it is part of worship. The bodies we have been given to fulfill our purpose on this earth are a trust from God that we should respect and treat with reverence. Each time you choose to say no to junk food and consume something nourishing instead, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself of God and the blessings you’ve been given.
Don’t overeat: It’s far too easy to overeat come time to break the fast. There are two solutions: plan what you’ll eat in advance (when you’re well-fed, not hungry), and eat slowly. Start off by drinking water and taking a couple of bites of food. Pause to pray Maghrib before beginning the meal, which is sunnah. Be mindful of every bite, and reflect on what you learned each day from the fast. Overeating defeats the purpose of the fast and is an unhealthy practice.
Practice fasting/eating less during the day now: If you snack throughout the day, the time to stop is now. It’s a harder adjustment to switch to fasting daily when you’re used to eating constantly. Consider preparing for Ramadan by fasting for a couple of days in advance, especially if you haven’t at all since last year.
Quit caffeine: This one is a no-brainer. Don’t self-sabotage by quitting coffee or tea on the first day of Ramadan! As I described above, withdrawal symptoms make fasting harder, and that includes withdrawal from caffeine.
Don’t fantasize about food during the day: I strongly believe that fantasizing about the variety of foods you’ll eat after the fast makes it harder to stick to a healthy diet. Unfollow those food blogs! The idea of (insert your unhealthy craving here) sounds amazing when you haven’t had food or drink for hours, and the more you build up the expectation and desire of eating it, the harder it is to stay away after the fast. Ramadan is a great time to practice being mindful of your thoughts, and this is one way to do so.
Personally, sleep is my biggest challenge during Ramadan. When I was a junior in college, I had an internship during Ramadan that necessitated a long, early commute. The exhaustion was unbearable at times. Losing sleep for worship and suhoor can make brutal what could otherwise be an easy fast. Therefore, key to having a successful and healthy Ramadan is sleeping restfully, for an adequate number of hours.
Be selective about when you will lose sleep: Many advocate for cutting back on sleep daily during Ramadan. I disagree with this. First of all, worship comes in many forms; there’s no need to abuse your body to meet such a standard. Stay up late to pray on evenings you can spend adequate time sleeping. Instead of going to the masjid nightly, worship with your family at home some evenings, which has the added benefit of improving familial ties and encouraging closeness and religiosity. Prepare your suhoor in advance so that there’s no need to get up two hours before Fajr to make a meal. Spend time during the day engaging in extra acts of worship, like taking brief breaks to read Quran, reflect, or pray. Remember: the goal of Ramadan is to come out spiritually revitalized, so the best possible worship is to work on improving your long term habits, not to engage in an extreme regimen that you dispose of when the thirty days are up.
Don’t eat crappy food: Just one day of eating high-fat, high-sugar, low fiber foods has been found to decrease sleep quality. In other words, what you eat for iftar affects the quality of your sleep, even if you’re not snacking just before bed. This is another reason to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet: it is naturally high in fiber, low in fat, and unprocessed. Eating such a diet will improve your sleep quality and decrease your hunger levels (as discussed above), maximizing the benefits of the fast. Leave the fried foods, greasy chicken, processed foods, and sugary desserts at the door.
Don’t oversleep: On the other end of the spectrum is oversleeping. Staying up all night and sleeping until iftar is unhealthy and makes it difficult to do anything but sleep and eat. Sleeping through the fast also defeats the purpose. Be regimented about sleeping at night, and try to get seven to eight consecutive hours at most.
Exercise is incredibly beneficial for a variety of reasons, but it’s challenging to fit it in during a long fast. However, movement is always important. How can you include it in your schedule?
If you were previously sedentary, perform gentle exercise: If you don’t already exercise regularly, I don’t suggest that you commit to an intense regimen during Ramadan. Walking or light yoga are two options for someone who doesn’t already have an exercise routine. Do not overexert yourself during the fast.
Ramadan is not a time for muscle-building: Though it can be done with careful planning and calorie counting, I suggest you commit to a lighter load during Ramadan. You can easily lose muscle if you aren’t sustaining the calorie consumption necessary to fuel intense weight-lifting - in the absence of adequate energy stores, your body will break down muscle. Furthermore, I rarely advocate for calorie counting, and I think it should be avoided especially during Ramadan, as it can be a source of distraction.
Exercise immediately before or an hour after iftar: Personally, I like to exercise right before iftar, so that when I’ve finished, I can hydrate and eat my meal. If you prefer to exercise during non-fasting hours, your best bet is to do so an hour after iftar. However, I caution you that exercising within an hour of bed time can make it harder to fall asleep (though it likely won’t negatively impact sleep quality). Above, we discussed the importance of sleeping restfully during the holy month, so be aware of this.
Do not exercise vigorously when you have hours of fasting ahead of you: Though some like to work out after suhoor or during the day, this can lead to muscle breakdown and dehydration. If your schedule necessitates working out during the day, commit to an easy load for your skill level, and be careful.
On the first day of Ramadan, don’t exercise: For those who exercise vigorously, I suggest you allow your body time to get acclimated to fasting by taking the first day off. Over the first few days, gradually ease into your new routine.
Hopefully, the tips above have provided you with a blueprint for having your healthiest Ramadan ever. I think it’s important to be realistic about what you can commit to - you don’t want your attentions to become so divided that you lose out on the spiritual sweetness of the holy month. This is why planning is so important! Take the stress of decision-making out of your day to day, and just focus on executing. Deciding what to do on a daily basis is a cognitive load, and it drains energy and resources from implementation. Spending an hour at the beginning of each week mapping out your days will pay dividends. Be as specific as you can!
Finally, I would like to firmly comment on the importance of collective effort. It shouldn’t fall on one member of the family to prepare all the food (for example) and cultivate everyone else’s Ramadan experience at the expense of their own. Mothers are often forced to sacrifice their goals and worship so that they can meet the demands of their family, and I firmly urge you to reject that this Ramadan. If you are the family member that unfairly carries the burden, communicate to your family the expectation that they all participate. If someone else in your family is usually the responsible party, it’s your religious duty to step up and help out. “Helping” doesn’t mean doing small tasks. It means committing to an important duty and executing it throughout Ramadan - whether that’s cooking, planning the family’s schedule, or cleaning. This Ramadan, don’t be selfish. Do your part so that everyone can gain something from the holy month.
May you have a beautiful, enjoyable, religiously reviving, and healthy Ramadan with your family and loved ones. May you find it in your heart to forgive those you need to forgive, cultivate the strength to let go of bad habits, and develop a new closeness to Allah (SWT). If you learned something from this piece, keep me in your prayers! Drop any comments or questions below.