Keeping cool in Ramadan
The traditional liquorice juice seller
By any standard Egypt has witnessed a miserable summer this year, what with the extreme heat, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, and the humidity that has been such a feature of the summer weather. As if to heighten the spiritual experience for the country's close to 70 million Muslims, Ramadan falls during the middle of summer this year for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Moreover, it seems that the days of Ramadan will get hotter and longer for the next seven years, since the Islamic lunar calendar is roughly 11 days shorter than the international solar calendar. This presents a challenge for pious Muslims, who have to fast from dawn to dusk, nearly 15 hours, in the summer's scorching heat, though religious leaders say that this challenge will lead to greater faith among those fasting.
"The longer days during the hot summer mean that Muslims will experience the fast in a deeper sense, especially those who otherwise live easy lives and rarely sweat or feel hunger," said Mahmoud Omar, imam of a mosque in Giza. "It's during the summer that you truly appreciate fasting for what it really is. The fast should be somewhat uncomfortable and challenging to the daily routine."
However, for nutritionists and dietitians, maintaining a balanced diet during Ramadan is all the more important in summer, since otherwise the body can be deprived of the required nutrients. Eating too much outside the fast, or eating unhealthily, can also affect how people feel when they are fasting. According to nutritionist Osama Rafik, people should avoid gorging themselves during Iftar [the fast-breaking meal], and they should follow the sunna [the Prophet Mohamed's teachings and traditions] and break the fast with dates and either milk, water or fruit juice.
"After fasting, you need to bring your fluids and blood sugar level up without overdoing it," Rafik says. The Iftar meal, properly prepared, contains a lot of energy, and dates are an excellent source of fibre, carbohydrates and essential minerals that help to keep energy levels up. After performing Al-Maghreb, the sunset prayer, Rafik recommends eating a light starter, such as soup and crackers. This will replenish the body's electrolytes, which are vital for brain and nerve function. It can also help kick-start the stomach and prepare it for the Iftar.
Many people feel lethargic during Ramadan, something that can be due to skipping the Sohour, (the pre-dawn) meal. However, according to Rafik this is especially important for fasters. "The Sohour provides fasters with energy throughout the day of fasting," he says. "But be careful not to overeat. Focus on eating foods that are slow to digest and rich in complex carbohydrates and protein, like fruits or vegetables, and drink plenty of water. An egg or white cheese on a piece of whole-grain toast, a slice of watermelon, yoghurt, and two glasses of water are an excellent Sohour meal," Rafik says.
"Foods like barley, wheat, oats, beans and lentils can provide your body with nutrients for up to eight hours, almost twice as long as sugary foods."
Staying hydrated should be at the top of any faster's list this year. In summer it is important to drink more fluids than during the rest of the year, and with Ramadan hitting at such a hot time of the year one loses even more water. Rafik recommends not giving in to the temptation to drink too much water during Iftar, however, in order not to overload the system. "Drink a healthy amount of water and juice throughout the night instead," he says.
Even if you are in good health, you should recognise that Ramadan during the middle of summer may have an effect on your health. Rafik has some tips to avoid dehydration or exhaustion during the holy month:
* During the hottest part of the day, between 12pm and 3pm, stay in cool areas (indoors or in the shade) and limit physical activity. Rest if possible.
* Avoid fried and spicy foods, as they may cause acidity or indigestion.
* During the evening hours, resist the temptation to drink tea, coffee or soda. When visiting friends or family, ask for glasses of water.
* Between Iftar and Sohour, oriental sweets should be consumed with moderation. Serve yourself, your family and your guests a "dessert" of fresh fruit instead and a reasonable amount of nuts.
* Eat the Sohour meal just before dawn to get the most benefits from it. It will help you to wake up for the fagr (dawn) prayer.
* Avoid fatty dishes during Sohour and drink lots of milk.
* Reduce your intake of salt and pickled food in the Sohour, since these will rob your body of moisture.
* Try to steer clear from sweets at Sohour, as they can cause a rise in blood sugar, which will make you thirsty later in the day.
* Sip water throughout the evening, and aim for eight glasses by bedtime. To help you keep track, fill and refill a water bottle with a measured amount of water, and be sure to finish it.
* Eat enough fibre to avoid constipation.
* Eat juicy fruits, such as watermelon, grapes and tomatoes, as these will provide your body with much-needed water.
* Light exercise, such as walking for 15-20 minutes, is best done in the evening hours.
Drinks of the season
DURING Ramadan, the body loses liquids. In order not to get dehydrated, especially during the hottest time of the year, people should drink more after Iftar. The following are special kinds of drinks that are popular for this purpose. To make a cold drink using any of the ingredients below, just soak them (with or without sugar) in cold water. Tamr hindi can also be soaked in milk, which combats stomach acid.
Erq sous (liquorice root): This is another popular drink in Arab countries, especially Egypt and Syria. Although not to everyone's taste, liquorice, better known in the form of candy than as a drink, is one of the most biologically active herbs known. Acting as an anti- inflammatory, it affects the immune, circulatory and respiratory systems. Liquorice is a chronic fatigue combatant, mimicking the effects of natural hormones. As such, it fights off lethargy by causing fluid retention (which will make you feel less thirsty), raising blood
pressure (which usually dips while fasting, due to the lack of sugar intake), and combating potassium loss.
Liquorice is also used to soothe the stomach and as an effective cough suppressant.
Karkade (hibiscus): One cup of karkade contains 17 per cent citric acid and half as much vitamin C as an orange. It helps to boost and strengthen the immune system, especially while fasting. Hibiscus is also widely used to regulate blood pressure, which can fluctuate between low during fasting and high after Iftar, due to the concentrated sugar intake during the latter meal. Known in hot regions of the globe as an effective thirst quencher, hibiscus reduces the build up of fatty deposits in the arteries and reduces blood cholesterol levels. It is used in treating urinary tract infections and aids in regulating blood flow and helps maintain the blood sugar balance in the body.
Tamr hindi (tamarind): This comes from a tropical African fruit tree, but is now widely grown in India. It has one of the highest levels of carbohydrates and proteins found in any fruit, and is the perfect beverage for diabetics, as it regulates blood sugar and cholesterol. It is also extremely rich in vitamin C, which boosts the immune system, and is high in beta carotene. Other essential minerals found in Tamr hindi include potassium, phosphorous and calcium.
Qamar eldin (apricot juice): This, the most traditional of Ramadan beverages, is made from dried apricot paste. The mediaeval physician and philosopher Avicenna, known in the Arab world as Ibn Sina, rightly praised dried apricots for their thirst-quenching properties and as antidotes for diarrhoea. Qamar eldin aids indigestion, regulates the metabolism and is packed with vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorous. A perfect way to start Iftar, it produces enough of a sugar rush to get the digestive system working without over-stimulating it. (Go easy on the sugar, though). Qamar eldin soothes jumpy nerves and stress, so it's great after a hard day at work. It also contains folic acid, which is very good for pregnant women.
Kharoub (carob): This is another acquired taste, though it is worth trying as it reduces cholesterol, aids digestion and acts as an antioxidant. Pinitol, an active component of kharoub, has been shown to regulate blood glucose and is especially recommended for diabetics.
Laban rayeb (a yoghurt drink) : is one of the most popular drinks in the Middle East. It has also found its way to Egypt, where intake is generally restricted to this time of year. It is well known that the friendly bacteria found in live yoghurt can aid digestion, as well as help to clean the intestines and digestive tract, all of which can be necessary to treat an upset stomach after a few days of heavy Iftars and Sohours. Because it requires no added sugar, those watching their waistlines tend to prefer this creamy drink.