April 09, 2023
Many consider Ramazan to be the ideal time to make healthy changes to their routine whereas eating habits are considered. Muslims observe Ramazan as a holy month and make an effort to opt for a purer lifestyle by praying more, being charitable to others, and of course, testing their own patience by fasting from sunup to sundown. In Pakistan, along with increased attention to prayers, Ramazan is also celebrated as a sort of festival for food. In most households, there is a hubbub and certain joy associated with the preparations of meals every day throughout Ramazan. Iftaris are the meals most looked forward to as that is when Muslims break their fast and iftar menus differ from the usual family dinners. There are also iftar and sehri parties and get-togethers where food is the centrepiece.
This presents the problem and paradox of eating healthy in the month of Ramazan. The food items made for iftars usually include fried items, high carb and high sugar foods. If one opts to have the entire spectrum of iftari delights from the ubiquitous shops that specialise in pakoras, samosas, chaat, etc, this increases the chances of consuming an unhealthy and processed diet.
For Pakistan, the health statistics are a wake up call, with more than half the country’s population being overweight. According to data by the World Health Organization, 58.1% of Pakistanis are overweight and 43.9% suffer from obesity. In the context of the region, according to the Asian cutoff, 72.3% of Pakistan’s population is overweight and 58.1% Pakistanis are obese. With weight issues come multiple diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases, and many other life-threatening diseases. Bad eating habits or excessive eating of unhealthy food are a major contributive factor to such health problems.
Whereas Ramazan is considered to be an ideal time to make a healthy routine because it is a month set aside for focusing on all things pure, people end up making unhealthy choices instead. Thinking they are weak after fasting for anywhere between 12 to 16 hours depending on the time of the year Ramazan falls in, they eat more in order to replenish the energy that they have spent during the day. By giving such excuses, we end up consuming extra calories than what our bodies require.
Certified nutritionist Dr Hasnain Rizvi explains: “The window to eat during fasting is the same and one can have proper three meals but due to misunderstanding, people end up eating double their required calories and end up gaining more weight than losing during Ramazan.”
One can always find an excuse to not eat healthily. However, “Ramazan is the best zone to take care of one’s health as one gets into an intermittent fasting zone automatically,” Dr Rizvi, an Ora-facial surgeon, tells Tribune Magazine. “In recent years, the numbers have not shown to be very promising as almost every Pakistani aged above 35 is overweight. That leads to obesity in the majority of cases,” he says. Eating excessively in one month not only adds up health risks but also puts your life in jeopardy because only two things cause most risks in a healthy life: smoking and obesity.
“Everyone points out that smoking is a health hazard but they don’t consider obesity to be the same. Just imagine someone who is 100-110 kgs is taking up 30 kgs of extra burden on their spine. That is what invites many health issues,” he explains. Furthermore, the added weight not only impacts functioning but is directly linked to compromising the functions of the liver, heart, kidney, and spine.
The majority of Muslims fasting in Ramazan come up with excuses that going without food and water for long hours, they feel lethargic and their energy levels go down or they feel lazy whereas in reality, the metabolism of the body slows down after three, four days of fasting and the mind kicks into starvation mode and begins to conserve energy. “With slower metabolism, when we just lay in bed or keep resting, thinking that we shouldn’t waste our energy, we end up gaining weight despite losing weight due to fasting,” says Dr Rizvi.
Fasting can make you gain weight
The common misconception is that we eat less in Ramazan. However, after breaking fast and before sehri, within that window of time that we are allowed, we end up eating more meals, such as iftar, dinner, late-night snacking, and sehri. “No one is saying leave out fried items or dine-out options completely but excessive intake is what causes problems. A common practice for people is eating fried items for two days to stop themselves from unhealthy eating but on the third day, they eat 10 items in one go. Instead, the ideal situation could be eating two items per day so that the craving for it will also be satisfied,” suggests the nutritionist.
Baking or air-frying food items instead of deep-frying are good options. “All such techniques are not completely wrong, but they cannot benefit in the long run because it is similar to the idea that someone eats a crispy fried chicken burger or biryani but has diet coke with it,” Dr. Rizvi says. After consuming 500 calories a diet coke will not help much, he says. Similarly, stir-frying can only lessen 50-60 calories from the amount of oil used while all other calories from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are still there in foods like a samosa or a pakora that one has made at home.
Fruit intake in Ramazan
With all the excessive oily and fat intake in Ramazan, one beneficial thing that people unintentionally do is increases the intake of fruits be it raw fruit or in the shape of chaat and other items. “The numbers of sales in fruit buying capacity are immense during Ramazan and this is the reason for the increase in selling prices as well. For some reason, people think that fruit intake will balance the fried stuff, which is not true but still fruit is a better food to consume after 15 hours of fasting,” shares Hafeezullah Gambhir, the provincial programme manager in Sindh of Nutrition International.
Ideally, people should opt for lighter items for breaking their fast such as salad and fruits but the tradition has been set otherwise where fried and sugary items are what people opt for in the majority of the households. “The practice is mostly seen in urban populations. In rural areas, the trend is to break their fast and have dinner while in cities the availability of options in markets has encouraged the idea that people should be eating fancy iftar items,” Gambhir says. Eating such items after fasting causes bloating, upset stomach, weight gain, and even blood pressure issues.
With changing eating habits over the last few years, people must take their health issues seriously and avoid eating out. “Even fried items that are made at home are relatively better than the ones that we get from outside because at home we can keep a check on raw material and oil while the food authorities do not have that kind of control or check on local shops,” Gambhir explains. There should be an awareness campaign on the use of sugar as our population is already sitting on a ticking bomb with increasing incidience of diabetes. During Ramazan meals especially we tend to consume sugar in every form. “The majority break their fast with sugary drinks, be it juice or cold drink or sherbet, then we even take sugar with yogurt, fruit chaat or even bakery items,” he adds.
Dieting and healthy eating require work. These habits cannot come overnight. One cannot expect a person to leave everything he has practised throughout their lives as soon as Ramazan starts. The only solution can be to control excess use. “A balanced diet is necessary and technology has helped in using the internet to get maintenance calories where one can figure out how much calories one should eat in a day to maintain, lose, or gain weight,” Dr Rizvi says. Counting calories is simple math and hardly takes a few seconds. One can also calculate the daily calories intake by googling things like how much calories are there in a palm-sized roti. That is how one can maintain a healthy diet. The important thing to remember is that there is no one rule to fit everyone; calorie intake varies from person to person depending on height, weight, age, and daily routine.
In Pakistani households sometimes it is not easy to make separate food for oneself due to many reasons, but with maintenance calories, one can eat everything that is cooked at home but according to the need of one’s body. “Some people have jobs that are physically tiring while some have office-based jobs where they are sitting for the whole day. So the idea of fasting and feeling energy drain will be different for both cases. Similarly, the calorie burn would be different too. The best way is to understand your intake of food and eat homemade food,” says Dr Rizvi.
He mentions that in the last 20 years, the idea of eating out has increased and this is the main reason the numbers of diseases in youngsters are high. The immunity of an average 30-year-old in Pakistan is far more compromised than it was in the 1960s because no matter where you are eating out, the food quality and hygiene cannot match with what one can cook at home. “All these diet issues and fried items that we consume without thinking are causing major health issues. We never heard of a 30-year-old dying due to cardiac arrest a decade ago but nowadays these are the cases that we are facing. Eating homemade healthy food not only helps you be active but also increases your life expectancy,” he adds.