We are now well into the second week of Ramadan. As such we thought it appropriate for our first blog post to cover Fitness and Nutrition during the holy month. We reached out to our favorite Personal Trainer and Nutritionist Cathleen Fitzgerald-Graham a.k.a CAT to talk about this.
Cat admits fasting can be very beneficial if done correctly. It gives us time to rest our bodies and take a break from constantly digesting. In fact, medical and scientific resources have shown that a restricted calorie intake decreases the chances of cancer, tissue damage, heart disease, age-related cognitive decline and increases life expectancy.
It is however important to plan your meals and activity ahead of time so you can be sure to get the nutrients, hydration and rest that you need. Remember: “failing to plan is planning to fail”.
Here’s a little science lesson (nothing too complicated I promise!). When we eat throughout the day, the body takes some of the food and stores it as energy or glucose (blood sugar) in fat cells, muscle fibers and glycogen molecules. Once in the bloodstream, glucose can be used immediately for energy or stored in the body, to be used later. It does this through chemical called insulin, the body’s main storage hormone. For example, if you eat a large meal and your body doesn’t need that much glucose right away, insulin will help your body store it into larger packages of glucose called glycogen and convert to energy later. Without insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar levels high. Insulin also helps our bodies store fat and protein. Almost all body cells need protein to work and grow and the body needs fat to protect nerves and make several important hormones. Fat can also be used by the body as an energy source.
When we haven’t eaten in a while, the body begins to break down and use the stored energy. First breaking down glycogen, followed by protein and then fat (although at many times it breaks down all three at the same time, but to different degrees). This is done through glucagon, a hormone which functions opposite to insulin. Meaning, insulin packs energy while glucagon un-packs it. As the body’s main un-packing hormone, glucagon increases the amount of energy in the form of sugar in the blood i.e. glucose.
When fasting your energy mainly depends on the sugar glucose that you consume during your Suhour meal. To get the most from your Suhoor, focus on the quality of the foods you eat rather than the quantity. It is one of the most important meals as it prevents hunger, tissue breakdown and helps us cope better with the fasting day.
Cat advises to eat slowly digestible and absorbable foods, which are rich in fibre such as complex carbohydrates (whole-wheat breads, brown rice and pasta, potatoes and whole wheat grains such as burghul, quinoa, etc.). In fact, fiber makes us feel full sooner than other foods we eat, slowing down our rate of digestion and keeping us feeling full longer. Fiber also moves fat through our digestive system faster so that less of it is absorbed. Moreover, whole-wheat breads and cereals are rich in B vitamins, which help release energy from the food we’ve eaten.
Conversely, foods high in sugar provide energy for only a short time and then lead to a drop in blood sugar levels, and consequently low energy, hunger and wanting to eat more high-sugar foods. It’s a vicious cycle!
Together with complex carbohydrates, its is advisable to eat protein-rich foods such as milk, dairy products, eggs or legumes (fool, chickpeas, lentils) that will make us feel full for a longer period. Cat suggests keeping the meat and fish for our previous meals but if you are trying to get extra protein in your diet you can try mixing a bowl of oatmeal with a scoop of casein protein. In fact, casein is better taken before bed as it’s released slower than whey protein, which is better taken directly post-workout for quick muscle recovery.
Many of us eat way too much in just one sitting. Having eaten the amount we would usually consume throughout the whole day within half an hour, the body wants to store as much of this food as possible and in turn provide more than the required amount of sugar into the blood, causing damage to the body and creating a whole metabolic uproar, extremely harmful for the body.
Don’t over do it when breaking your fast. Follow the Sunna and break your fast with dates and milk, water or fresh juice. After Maghrib prayer continue with a light starter such as soup. Dates, juices and soups are good sources of carbohydrates and help bring your low blood glucose to normal levels. Liquids also help maintain the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body and replenish whatever was lost when fasting.
Our Ideal Ramadan Meals
Cat personally likes to start eating as she would any normal day: oatmeal made with almond milk, berries and a non-caffeinated tea. I while later, she will have another meal. If she doesn’t get the time to workout before Iftar, she would generally workout before this meal. Cat makes sure this meal is balanced by including complex carbohydrate sources, protein from meat or legumes, vegetables as well as fruits. And she doesn’t forget her vitamins and supplements!
I like to break my fast with a couple of dates and water. I usually wait at least 10-15 minutes before I have my iftar meal which usually consists of soup, a salad and lean protein. I will have rice or pasta every once in a while but I try to limit my intake especially if it’s not wholewheat. A couple of hours later, I usually need a quick pick-me-up so I’ll opt for more dates with a handful of nuts, some fruits / a fruit salad or even a green smoothie with either chia or hemp seeds for a little added protein. Finally for suhoor, I love my oatmeal. I try changing this up by adding different toppings everytime.
Tips for Avoiding Thirst
- Drink plenty of fluids and water between Iftar and Suhour to prevent dehydration. Keep a bottle on you all the time to encourage you and help track how much you’ve consumed
- Limit your intake of fried foods and foods high in fats and sugar
- Avoid foods high in salt such as pickles, salty crackers and nuts, and canned foods
- Try not to drink too much tea especially at Suhour as it can increase fluids lost through urination
- Don’t overeat at the Suhour meal
Take advantage of this holy month and give your body a break from refined, high-sugar, high carbohydrate foods to truly enjoy the benefits of fasting.
“Predators in the wild only hunt when they are hungry”
Ori Hofmekler, The Warrior Diet
Now that we’ve spoken about healthy nutrition, it’s time we spoke about FITNESS! When is the best time to workout during Ramadan? This question comes up time and time again.
Cat recommends scheduling workouts right before Iftar. In fact, fasting helps release adrenalin, promoting the breakdown of glycogen to glucose, giving you more energy to push through your cardio, lift heavier weights and/or do more reps and sets, assuming you have eaten a good Suhoor the night before. Moreover, when the body runs out of glucose during exercise, it switches fuel sources from sugar to fat, increasing fat metabolism without breaking down muscles.
However, If working out fasted isn’t your cup of tea then have a small Iftar meal with equal amounts of carbohydrates and protein, or a simple meal replacement shake before your workout and have a good meal after.
Finally, in order to cope with fasting and enjoy its full benefits, it is important to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can put you off wanting to workout, killing your motivation, as well as decreasing athletic performance. Moreover, lack of sleep is linked to weight gain and making bad eating choices in general. In fact, and here’s another mini science lesson, when you don’t get enough sleep, levels of Leptin, which is the hormone that signals the feeling of fullness, drop and Ghrelin, the hormone that signals your appetite, increases! And when we are hungry and tired, we tend to opt for “quick fixes”, which are generally on the high sugar, high carb, high fat side.
So get enough sleep, eat well, stay active and spread all the goodness this holy month brings!
Please leave any comments/questions you have. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, what works best for you and what you’d like to see on FitNut!
Cat & Sarah x