(This was originally posted in June 2015. It has been updated as of June 1, 2016)
Optimal nutrition and workout protocol to stay healthy, fit and function well while fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
I would like to begin by wishing my Muslim friends Ramadan Kareem.
With the holy month of Ramadan taking place in the summer this year, the duration of the fast is long, ranging between 15-17 hours in many places.
For my friends in Dubai and the GCC, the fast lasts for around 15 hours, which often includes a full work-day.
This presents a number of challenges relating to maintaining strong cognitive function and staying alert during the latter hours of the day, prior to the break of fast.
I'm presenting below my thoughts on how to approach meals, workouts, and differences between men and women.
However before I outline my advice on how best to manage your diet during the Holy month, I wanted to point out some of the significant health benefits of "fasting".
Numerous studies as well as anecdotal evidence point to the positive effects of intermittent fasting on the human body.
Such benefits include:
- Autophagy: this refers to the process of "cleaning house" that cells undertake. When cells are not busy metabolizing nutrients from food, they are free to dedicate organelles and enzymes to "clean up house", removing toxins and unwanted molecules. This is of particular importance for the immune system, as cells responsible for our defense absorb "invaders" then destroy them within the cells. Autophagy is an integral part of that process and fasting is a big contributor to this phenomenon. Some studies have also demonstrated that fasting helps the body seek and destroy cancerous cells, since such cells are rendered weak by the absence of fuel (glucose) needed for them to replicate.
- Increased fat oxidation and improved lipid profile: when the body is deprived of carbohydrates for 12-15 hours, it goes into fat-burning mode (ketosis). In other words, your body starts to burn triglycerides (fat) for fuel, thereby improving your triglycerides level, a primary risk for metabolic disease.
HOWEVER: fasting done wrong can certainly harm you rather than benefit you.
If the body is not "primed" to burn fat, or if steps are taken to disable the ability to burn fat: adrenal glands will become stressed, cortisol (stress hormone) will be elevated, immune system will be under pressure, hormones will be out of whack, muscles will be used as fuel causing muscle loss and lower metabolism, and finally severe carb cravings and over-feeding will result in insulin resistance, weight gain, etc...
Guidelines for fasting in a healthy way
Men: focus on high quality fats and protein, minimize carbs.
Why minimize carbs? Because carbs will cause a rise in insulin, which in turn will cause a drop in "lipase", the enzyme responsible for breaking down fat for fuel. In other words, carbs will "switch off your ability to burn fat for fuel".
Then a few hours later, the carbs you've eaten have been burned off, your ability to burn fat has been switched off, and you "crash".
A sample meal could be: eggs, avocado, butter/olive oil, spinach, chia seeds, unprocessed sea salt.
- Keep the meal small and easy to digest so you can sleep afterwards.
- Add some full spectrum (not BCAA) amino acids if you're likely to be very active during the day.
- The higher fat content will give you the fuel you need to continue to burn fat and function well throughout the day and will trigger the utilization of your own fat.
- Avoiding carbs will make sure you stay in fat burning mode.
- It is advisable to take some digestive enzymes if you plan to go back to sleep after your meal.
- Hydrate well.
Women: similar to men but add some low insulin index carbohydrates such as a little bit of sweet potato or some oats (if you can tolerate it).
- the reason for the added carbs for women is because women require a higher carb intake to maintain proper adrenal function and hormonal balance. Skipping the carbs increases the risk of stressing your hormones, lowering your metabolism, and causing you to be in a state of "chronic inflammation"
Your main carb intake should come during Iftar. You should balance it out with protein and healthy fats.
HOWEVER: you still want to avoid big insulin spikes which cause the carb eaten to be converted into triglycerides.
Dates are a question mark. It's ok to have one date to break the fast, but only one. Dates cause a BIG insulin spike, something you want to avoid (unless you've worked out immediately before Iftar, see below).
You want to stick to low Insulin Index carbs, so also stay away from all the sugary drinks (juices), bread, etc. Rather focus on rice, quinoa, sweet or even regular potatoes, carrots, etc (all within reason).
Sample meal: 1 date, soup, rice with lamb and salad.
No differences between men and women for Iftar.
Click here if you want to read more about the carb metabolism.
If you're an active person or have trouble sleeping through the night, a small piece of fruit or 1 tbsp of raw honey (even better) just before bed would be ideal to make sure your blood sugar doesn't crash and wake you up during the night.
If you follow my guidelines for Iftar and even more importantly: for Sohour, you should be able to get a good workout in before breaking fast.
Your workout should be short in time and efficient. I would skip the cardio and focus on doing 30min of interval or strength training (email me if you want specifics).
If you follow the nutrition guidelines I outline above, you will arrive at your pre-Iftar workout in "fat-burning mode" with your glycogen stores (glucose stored in your muscles and liver) still up. This will allow you to blast through a good workout in 30min.
I have tested this myself multiple times (doing a hard workout following a 15-18hr fast) and, if done properly, works very well and can give you tremendous metabolic benefits.
Immediately after the workout: hydrate with water well and take full spectrum amino acids (5-10g), then have your meal.
Many people I work with on the fitness training side are preparing for a sporting event (e.g. triathlon or marathon) which is taking place a few weeks after Eid.
As such, they would be looking to maintain a high level of training during Ramadan.
If you happen to fall into that category, it would make sense to follow the following protocol:
- Begin your training 30min before breaking fast (just like I describe above).
- At the time of Iftar, hydrate with water with a pinch of real sea-salt added to it, as well as one or two tablespoons of Maple Syrup (which is 100% glucose, as opposed to honey or fruits which are partially fructose).
- Take 5g of full spectrum amino acids.
- Continue your workout.
Happy to answer any questions - please email me.