The science of Iftar

Time Out speaks to Ellen Edwards, head of clinical dietetics at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in the capital, to find out what fasting does to the body, what nutritional benefits traditional Iftar ingredients hold, and how to fast and remain healthy.

Whilst fasting the body still needs energy for the brain and normal activities. If we do not have adequate calories available to the body, we will break down our own muscle tissue for energy. During Ramadan, it is wise to concentrate on eating only foods high in vitamins and nutrients, so that your body can continue to function, grow and repair tissue well. This way it has energy 24 hours a day whether we are fasting or not. If you choose foods high in fat and calories and poor in vitamin density, you are not meeting your body’s needs. It is like filling your car with coffee instead of petrol – it is the wrong energy source and could cause damage.

Dates
The Prophet Muhammad broke his fast with a combination of milk and dates. This turned out to be a shrewd nutritional move. Upon breaking a fast, the body’s immediate need is for an easily available energy source to raise low blood sugar levels – the reason why those with diabetes are advised not to fast. Glucose fits this bill perfectly, and dates are simply packed full of it – sugar comprises up to 70 per cent of the fruit and 1kg of dates is said to give the body 3,470 calories. Dates are also a good source of protein and minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, used for building muscles and tissue, and contain a rich source of vitamins.
Try: Batheeth – freshly ripened dates with sauce

Goat’s milk
The other half of the Prophet Muhammad’s repast – goat’s milk is higher in fat than its bovine equivalent; it is also higher in levels of vitamins A and B, and lower in lactose, making it an often acceptable alternative for those with an intolerance to cow’s milk. The result is that goat’s milk has more easily digestible fat and protein content than its alternative, making it a common addition to the diet of the sick or convalescent, and in our case, those who are fasting. It is a quick source of calcium and fats, essential for body tissue maintenance, and is a natural source of vitamin D – a particularly problem vitamin for Muslim women who cover up entirely, and those who spend their time indoors and are thus deprived of the sunlight from which this vitamin is readily derived.
Try: Fluid milk

Ramadan juices
Juices have become a popular constituent of any Iftar banquet. Again, they serve an important nutritional purpose beyond the obvious replenishing of the body’s water. The juicing of any fruit causes it to lose a lot of the nutritious fibre contained within, but it also has the result of extracting the natural sugars out of the cells which normally contain them – which is why too much juice is bad for your teeth (be healthy and dilute it with half water). It is thus an excellent source of glucose and, when taken in moderation, ideal for boosting blood sugar and energy levels as well as being a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Try: Gamet jallab – a mixture of grape juice, rosewater and sugar topped with pine nuts

Soups and stews
Fasting produces many of the symptoms associated with sickness: you lack energy, you’re listless, you’re very dehydrated. The answer? Soup, of course. Its legendary reputation as a cure-all is well-deserved. The science is odd. Boiling meats and/or pulping vegetables for soups and stews actually reduces many of their nutritional benefits, but its easy digestion and effect in both rehydrating the body and providing nourishment more than makes up for this. Traditionally, these Ramadan dishes are packed with starchy, slow-releasing vegetables as well as protein-rich meats to give a long lasting energy boost. Its mixture of high- fibre pulses and bread is important for encouraging the churning of the stomach, and thus helping reduce the risk of constipation and the build-up of gastric and bile acids which are common during fasting.
Try: Harira – lamb, lentil and chick pea soup

Lamb
Lamb has less marbling (ingrained fat) than other red meats, and stores its fat on the outside so you can measure its content better – high fat foods can cause constipation. Lamb also contains nearly half unsaturated fats, which are better for you. However, where lamb really excels is in its protein content. Basically all muscle tissue is high in iron, zinc and B12 – commonly found in animal protein. Three ounces of meat is enough for your daily needs as long as you are eating foul, dried beans etc for other sources, although some dietitians argue that we only need it two or three times a month for the Vitamin B12. Lamb dishes are often combined with rice, which is carbohydrates for energy.
Try: Mahshi – Slow-roasted lamb stuffed with rice, raisins, onions, eggs, and a host of spices and seasonings

Remember

• If you are tired or sick consult your physician

• High sugar foods such as sweets offer a source of highly concentrated glucose, but offer few other benefits and will increase both your thirst and risk of dehydration

• Drinks like coke, coffee and tea are best avoided. Caffeine is a diuretic and you need to maintain your water levels. Salty fish and seafood are also best shunned for similar reasons

• Smoking is not only a general health risk, it also affects the utilisation of various vitamins, metabolites and enzyme systems within the body

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