A guide to healthy fasting during Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan marks a period of fasting for Muslims around the world. This religious obligation requires those who are fit and able to abstain for eating and drinking during daylight hours. We’ve put together the guide below to answer any questions you might have about fasting, nutrition, what and when to eat, and who’s exempt from fasting during Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the holy month in the Hijri (Islamic) calendar which marks a period of self-reflection for Muslims around the world. This month commemorates the date Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

Aside from abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, Muslims are additionally encouraged to look introspectively at their behaviours and to work on personal practices of gratitude, charity, worship, and self-discipline.

If you’re observing Ramadan, you may also feel like spending more time alone, more time in prayer with fellow Muslims, or more time with your family.

How safe is fasting?

Fasting does not pose a health risk for most healthy individuals.

If you do suffer with a health condition and are concerned about fasting, it’s worth consulting your GP before Ramadan begins.

There are certain circumstances and health conditions where fasting isn’t recommended.

These conditions include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Chronic illnesses where fasting would pose a significant health risk

Are there any medical benefits to fasting?

There is some evidence to suggest that different types of fasting may have a benefit.

This includes:

It is important to note that there are many different types of fasting and that the studies that show the benefits of fasting are usually not conducted on fasting during Ramadan.

A guide to fasting during Ramadan

During Ramadan, Muslims must abstain from the following during daylight hours:

  • Food
  • Drink
  • Sexual activity
  • Smoking

In addition to not eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset, Muslims must also refrain from all impure thoughts and activities, including swearing, gossiping, arguing, and fighting.

Should I adjust what I’m eating?

It's advisable you make some thoughtful adjustments to your eating habits to ensure you maintain proper nutrition and energy levels.

Whilst the temptation to eat anything and everything after sunset may be great, focus on balanced meals that contain a full and complete nutrition profile.

Top tips for refuelling during Ramadan

Focus on hydration first 

After sundown, be sure to hydrate with some hot or cold water before you begin eating. This will aid with digestion and help avoid you feeling sick or heavy after eating.

Eat balanced meals that are made up of wholefoods

A balanced meal looks like:

  • A good size portion of protein (chicken, meat, lentils, tofu, or fish for example)
  • Carbohydrates (preferably from wholegrains)
  • Lots of vegetables.

Try to eat foods that have a high-water content

These foods help with hydration, especially when the window for consumption is small.

Some great options include soups, broths, stews, salads, cucumbers, melon, apples, tomatoes, celery, peppers, and courgettes.

The nutritional value of these foods is typically very high, making them great for getting the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients into your system.

Start all meals with a few mouthfuls of protein

Whilst it may be customary to break your fast with three dates, starting each meal or snack with protein has been shown to help with balancing blood sugar levels.

The blood glucose management process is not only essential for consistent energy levels, but for weight management and general health and wellbeing too.

Eat mindfully and take your time

It takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain to detect that your stomach is full.

When we eat quickly, we become prone to overeating which can cause discomfort and cramping. Chewing thoroughly helps support effective digestion and prevent symptoms like bloating and gas.

Try to eat mindfully and take your time. This practice has a spiritual aspect to it too. Savouring every mouthful and remembering how lucky you are to have access to plentiful amounts of food can help develop gratitude and keep you grounded and humble during Ramadan.

Avoid caffeinated drinks

Caffeinated drinks have become popular in recent years and are often advertised and sold as sleep deterrents.

These will not help your hydration levels and will more than likely disturb your sleep. Avoid them wherever possible as the short-term gains they promise are almost always offset by long-term disruption to our blood sugar levels and sleep quality.

What should I eat for Suhoor?

Suhoor is the first meal of the day. You will eat this before sunrise.

Try to hydrate as soon as you wake up and eat around 10 to 15 minutes after that.

A light breakfast is recommended for Suhoor. Popular and healthy choices include an omelette with loads of veggies or an avocado salad.

Try not to go for a carb-rich meal as this may affect your blood sugar balance. This can cause your energy levels to fluctuate greatly throughout the day.

Ensure there is a good quality protein source present in your meal and that your food isn’t too salty. Excess salt can mean you start the day by contributing to a dehydrated state which is something you want to avoid. Salty foods include some cheeses, olives, and crisps.

What should I eat for Iftar?

Iftar is the first meal you will eat when the sun goes down.

As tempting as it can be, try not to fill up on snack foods as soon as the sun has set.

Whilst it may be traditional to break your fast with certain foods, we do recommend eating a balanced meal with adequate amounts of protein, complex carbohydrates and plenty of vegetables before having a snack food and some sweet treats.

Many Muslims practice limiting themselves to these sweet treats on certain days of the week in the run up to Eid. It’s also common to wait until Eid for certain treats to make the celebrations even more special.

Timing your food for maximum energy

Fighting the temptation to eat a lot before heading to bed and skipping Suhoor is really important.

Loading up on calories (especially from refined junk food) before sleeping and skipping your morning meal can cause cramping, poor sleep and diminished energy levels the following day.

We don’t recommend skipping Suhoor, as this meal is vital for fuelling your mind and body for the day ahead. If you’re working or are busy during the day, this becomes even more important.

Eating dates during Ramadan

During Ramadan, dates hold symbolic significance as they are traditionally consumed to break the daily fast.

The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have broken his fast with dates, emphasizing their nutritional value. Dates are rich in energy, aiding in a quick and gentle replenishment of nutrients after a day of fasting. They also symbolise the cultural and religious heritage of the Islamic community.

On top of their symbolic value, they are a great source of fibre and nutrients like magnesium, calcium, zinc, some B vitamins, and health-protective antioxidants.

Frequently asked questions

Why do Muslims fast?

Ramadan is a month of fasting and abstaining from things that are considered impure in the faith.

There are various reasons why Muslims are required to fast: 

  • To demonstrate self-control and restraint
  • To cleanse their bodies
  • To improve their gratitude
  • To remember that some people go hungry every day because they don’t have access to food
  • To be more compassionate and grateful for what they do have
  • To strengthen their faith

Who is exempt from Ramadan fasting?

There are various groups of people who are exempt from fasting. 

The first group includes children who have not yet reached puberty. It’s not uncommon for some children to choose to fast for half a day to feel involved with what the rest of their family are doing. 

The second group is people who are unwell. If you have any condition that would be affected by going without food and drink for a prolonged period, it's advised you abstain from fasting. This can, for example, include people who have diabetes or a similar chronic health condition.

The third group includes pregnant and breastfeeding women. If you are menstruating, you are also not required to fast.

The last group covers people who are travelling long distances. If you are travelling and the journey is deemed long enough, you are also not required to fast.

If I’m exempt, should I do something else instead?

If you are not able to fast during Ramadan, you may be expected to make up your missed fasts at a later date (this typically has to be before the next Ramadan starts).

Otherwise, you may be expected to contribute funds to a charitable cause. This is known as Fidya.

If you are in doubt about what to do in place of fasting, seek guidance from your Imam or from a member of the Islamic community who you trust.

What if I’m pregnant and want to fast? 

If you are pregnant there is no expectation to fast, however, if you wish to fast we advise speaking to your GP or midwife first to check it is safe to do.

What if I’m on medication?

If you are on medication and if going without food and drink for a prolonged period would make your condition worse, then it’s likely you would be advised not to fast.

Should I stop exercising during Ramadan?

Not at all. You can absolutely continue exercising during Ramadan. 

Some people prefer to exercise before iftar but do bear in mind you may find your energy levels are generally lower due to your diminished calorie intake. 

If you’re low on energy and want to exercise, try breaking your fast before eating something light and then exercising. You may find this helps boost your energy levels and increases the quality of your sleep.

If you’re unsure about how best to exercise, use trial and error and see what works for you. Take it easy and remember that your mind and body are operating on a lower caloric input. 

Can I brush my teeth and wash during daylight hours?

You can brush your teeth and wash during daylight hours as long as you do not intentionally swallow any toothpaste or water.

If in doubt, always seek professional advice

If you have a health condition and aren’t sure about fasting for Ramadan, request a general health check up with your GP.

They will be able to advise whether fasting is right for you and answer any questions you might have.

Last updated Friday 8 March 2024

First published on Monday 29 January 2024