Celebrating a healthy Ramadan in 2021
Pandemic isolation has made it challenging for communities to gather
This year, Ramadan is projected to begin on Monday, April 12, and end on Tuesday, May 11 (although dates may vary). More than 1 billion people around the world will be recognizing this Islamic holy month through prayer and dawn to dusk fasting – a spiritual discipline of prayer and reflection.
The annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are the foundations of Muslim life.
During this month, it is believed that Allah (God) revealed the first verses of the Quran to Muhammad, on “The Night of Power,” traditionally celebrated on the 27th day of Ramadan. Prayers and holy deeds on this night are believed to be “better than a thousand months” and the annual decree is revealed to the angels who carry it out according to God’s plan.
“For me, Ramadan represents a very spiritual and religious time,” says Neveen El-Farra, MD, professor of Clinical Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “It is a time to gain perspective on life, to show immense gratitude and thankfulness to God for the numerous blessings he has bestowed, as well as a time to remind me of the adversity and suffering that affect people on a daily basis. It is a time to embrace an incredible closeness to God.”
In addition to the spiritual elements, Dr. El-Farra says Ramadan is also about community and charity.
She says that while kindness is a staple of the Muslim faith, Ramadan is a time to consciously show compassion for those less fortunate. For those able to do so, Zakat – charitable giving – is obligatory.
“It gives us perspective of our privilege to eat and drink every day, and keeps us mindful of the many struggles and hardships that people face.”
Ramadan during the pandemic
The isolation from the pandemic made it challenging for communities to gather and for charity events to continue in the usual fashion, Dr. El-Farra says.
She says she is looking forward to celebrating with her friends and family that have been vaccinated and is hopeful the community and charity events will continue, even if at a smaller capacity.
“Ramadan is a blessing of being together,” she says.
For Narma Ali, a Muslim chaplain in the Department of Spiritual Care at UCLA Health, the pandemic provided a unique opportunity for her family to come together in ways they hadn’t in years past.
Ali says she would typically drive to the mosque in the evenings by herself – an hour each way, which was taxing on her. Additionally, scheduling conflicts and her children being away for college made it difficult to celebrate.
Due to the pandemic, her kids were home for Ramadan last year. Ali says she “tried to make it extra special,” by cooking their favorite dishes and desserts.
“It was our first Ramadan we spent together in a long time,” she says.
Fasting is a discipline that brings Muslims closer to God, Ali says.
She says the self-restraint from food and drink is an attempt to better understand human suffering.
“It’s also about minding your temper, being patient and taking a closer look at your relationships,” Ali says. “Ramadan is about your ability to control yourself and think beyond yourself.”
Dr. El-Farra says she begins the day by hydrating before daybreak, while her parents have a 45-minute routine, complete with a full breakfast.
She says a typical fast might last between 14 and 16 hours during the spring and summer months. Fasting can be done safely if the necessary precautions are taken.
Hydrate before eating, Dr. El-Farra says. And before you start your fast, be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, to prevent dehydration.
For those taking part in Ramadan, here are other helpful tips to ensure you stay in good health throughout the month:
Dates help break your fast
According to tradition, dates are eaten at the start of Iftar, the meal served after sundown. Dates are a natural source of sugar, which helps to balance low blood sugar and fuel the body with much needed energy.
For those who may not have access to dates, Ali suggests going with something local.
“Prophet Muhammad was setting the example of breaking the fast with something local, simple and nutritious,” she says. “For people who tell me they don’t have dates, I say, ‘What's local and highly nutritious?’ Don't break the fast with McDonald's, but instead try a piece of fruit that might be in your backyard.”
Enjoy a bowl of soup
Soups are always an excellent choice to break your fast because they keep you hydrated and are packed with vitamins and minerals. Consider choosing nutrient-rich soups such as vegetable, tomato or lentil and avoid cream-based soups.
Eat your greens
A good rule of thumb is to include two servings of vegetables during each meal. Colorful salads are healthier because they contain many different kinds of nutrients. Consider incorporating half a cup of raw or cooked vegetables, or one cup of leafy raw vegetables.
Choose healthy carbs
The Iftar should contain healthy, complex carbohydrates. Some good choices may include brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole grain breads, potatoes and burghul. In addition to being a great source of energy, complex carbs are an excellent source of fiber and minerals.
Eat lean protein
During Iftar, consuming healthy lean proteins is very important. Complete proteins such as beef, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, fish and poultry contain a variety of amino acids and are critical to maintaining and producing muscle mass. You can avoid consuming saturated fats by choosing lean proteins such as fish, skinless chicken, turkey or low-fat dairy products. For vegetarian protein options, try legumes, beans and nuts.
Don’t rush your meal
There’s no need to rush through a meal. Breaking your fast by eating too much at once, too quickly, can cause indigestion and other gastric problems. Slowly eating smaller portions is better for your overall health. In general, you don’t want to go over the amount you would normally consume for a typical lunch or dinner.
Avoid foods high in fat, sodium and sugar
Heavy meals that contain lots of saturated fat, sodium and sugar should be avoided whenever possible. Instead of preparing fried meals, try baking, steaming, grilling, stewing and roasting. Rather than using salt and sugar to flavor meals, use herbs and spices. For dessert, reach for a healthy piece of fruit that contains natural sugars rather than candies, cakes or other baked goods that contain refined sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Engage in a mild exercise routine
During the first few days of fasting, you feel fatigued. Don’t push yourself to exercise too hard. Instead try a milder, low-impact exercise routine. Try walking briskly just after the sun sets and right before dawn.
Safe fasting tips for high-risk individuals
Despite being exempted by religion, many Muslims who have health conditions that put them at higher risk still decide to fast during Ramadan. The Quran exempts the elderly and the sick from the fasting tradition. But if you decide to fast, and you have a medical condition such as cardiac disease or diabetes, or are pregnant and/or breastfeeding, it is important to consult with your doctor and take the necessary precautions to ensure your health and safety.
Have a healthy and happy Ramadan!
Learn more about spiritual care at UCLA Health.