We're coming up on the final week of the month of Ramadan. It's the time of year when observant Muslims avoid all food and drink during the holy month's daylight hours — if they're able.
When Ramadan falls during the height of summer — as it does this year — that's a lot of hours. So what's the best thing to eat to prepare you for a long fast?
The pre-dawn breakfast meal — suhoor — varies quite a bit. What you serve for suhoor depends upon whether you're from the Middle East or Malaysia or the U.S., and whether you're ravenous in the morning or still a little ill from overindulging at last night's iftar, the Ramadan evening meal.
Suhoor tables are spread with everything from leftovers to a dish of stewed fava beans called ful medames to hard-boiled eggs to chia seed smoothies. But no matter what you're feeling in the mood for (and can stomach early in the morning), there are a few guidelines for the most sustaining meal.
Nour Zibdeh is a dietician and nutritionist in Herdon, Va., who advises many fasting patients (and observes Ramadan herself). She recommends suhoor dishes with protein, healthy fats, and fiber — as well as smoothies, fruits and water. You want to be satiated and hydrated. But, as Zibdeh notes, even the best suhoor has its limitations.
"There's no meal that will hold anyone for 16 hours. That's just basic physiology," Zibdeh explains. "After 6-8 hours, the body uses up all the glucose it obtained from a meal, and then it starts to go into its glycogen."
And after your body burns through these stores of sugar in the liver and muscles, it keeps on going.
"After 10 hours, the body even runs out from this energy reservoir, and it has to tap into the fat stores."
For those looking to lose weight, burning through stored fat might not sound so bad. Zibdeh points out there are benefits — some of the same reasons studies have come out in support of intermittent fasting. In addition to burning fat, the time without food gives your intestines a chance to empty, and your stomach a chance to shrink. And just as importantly, Zibdeh says, fasting cuts out the habit of mindless eating.
"I eliminate mindless eating when I'm fasting," Zibdeh says. "You can't lick your finger, you can't take your kids' food, you can't do any of those things." Zibdeh says that many of these eating habits can persist beyond the end of Ramadan.
And it's more than just food behaviors that change.
Manar Alattar observes the Ramadan fast from her home in Portland, Ore. Like many observant Muslims, she tries to eliminate more than just food. "We're really taught to clean out our behavioral closet, or whatever you want to think about it as — the bad habits." That, she says, laughing, "is a a little bit even more difficult if you're hungry, and grumpy."
Over a suhoor meal of date smoothies, leftover frittat, and warmed granola, Alattar's husband, Mohamed Abdelkader, notes that doing the hard work of fasting can ready you for the hard work that you need to do internally. "You have to push yourself to change. And that's what fasting does. So it's a practical Islam teaching."
And though it's difficult — even with a good breakfast — this work is what Ramadan is about.
"The prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said if you don't leave bad speech and bad actions, then God has no need for you to leave food and drink," Alattar says.
It's up to each individual Muslim to figure out how long bad speech and bad actions will be abandoned, and the behavioral closet can stay clean.