From Balanced Breakfasts to Frequent Fluids, Here’s How a Dietitian Navigates Ramadan

Ramadan feast.

Lara Antal / Verywell Health

Abrar Naely, MA, RDN, LD is a Syrian-American and Muslim registered dietitian based in Dallas, Texas who uses social media including Instagram and TikTok to educate people about nutrition and the benefits of eating healthy and staying active.

Many Muslims all around the world are currently observing Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. From sunup to sundown, those who are physically able in Muslim communities will engage in fasting from food and drink each day from March 22 through April 20 this year.

Being without food and drink throughout the day can be challenging, according to Abrar Naely, MA, RDN, LD, a Syrian-American and Muslim registered dietitian. However, as an expert in nutrition who’s observed Ramadan for 14 years, Naely is hoping to educate and inform more people about how they can incorporate nutritious habits throughout Ramadan.

Verywell spoke with Naely about nutrition tips and tricks she recommends for people who are fasting this year.

Verywell: First off, what does Ramadan mean to you? 

Naely: I’ve been observing Ramadan for so many years and it’s still challenging but we do this because we’re practicing self-control and self-restraint. I will say it does get easier toward the second and third week just because your body adapts to fasting.

Depending on where you are in the world, some people fast for 12 hours and some people fast for 16 hours. People who are fasting longer generally are in countries where the sun sets late. It’s tough, especially if you’re used to having a certain meal or drink. For me, I drink a lot of coffee, one in the morning and the afternoon for a pick-me-up, so it’s hard to have to drink one coffee before sunrise. But it’s really just a chance for me to reconnect with my faith.

Food is also a big part of my life, not just because I’m a dietitian. So whenever I take that out, it helps me focus on different things. For me, this month is all about giving back, doing extra good deeds, and reconnecting with my faith.

To do it in a safe way, I eat breakfast before we start our fast. I make sure to wake up and try to eat a balanced meal that has enough nutrients, calories, and protein because that’s going to ensure I have energy for the day. Making sure you’re eating a carb during those meals can help you have energy and when it’s balanced it ensures your blood sugar levels are normal throughout the day. If I can, I have a couple of snacks before I go to sleep at night, too.

Verywell: What types of meals or foods should people include in their diet to balance the fast or any hunger cravings?

Naely: Whenever it comes to breakfast, definitely have a balanced meal such as complex carbohydrates, protein, healthy fat, and enough fiber. Having a balanced meal is going to help you stay fuller longer and give you more energy without feeling sluggish afterward.

When it comes to protein for breakfast, I like to do either eggs, Greek yogurt, or chicken sausage. I also like avocado toast since the bread I use has fiber and some protein in it as well. Sometimes I’ll eat oatmeal with peanut butter instead since oats are complex carbohydrates—they’ll digest slowly and give you good energy throughout the day. You can also drink a protein shake because sometimes it’s easier to drink your calories, especially for some people who can’t stomach a big meal that early in the morning.

It’s common to break a fast with a glass of water and a couple of dates. After that, I recommend either having soup or salad because after you’ve been fasting and then go straight into a big meal, you’re probably going to inhale your food. Anyone that’s fasted has experienced this where they’ve just eaten right away. Then you just feel really tired because you ate too fast.

A lot of times during Ramadan we eat a lot of traditional foods. So if you’re an Arab you have a lot of Mediterranean foods which look like stuffed grape leaves or chicken and rice with specific spices. If you’re from India or Pakistan, it might be butter chicken or biryani, which is another chicken and rice dish. Mainly for dinner, try to focus on having a balanced meal.

Verywell: How important is it to pace yourself when eating or drinking after breaking a fast?

Naely: Your brain needs about 20 minutes to send a signal to your stomach letting you know that you’re full. If you eat super fast and don’t pace yourself, you’re not able to get that signal which causes you to overeat. Whenever you overeat, you’re chewing too quickly and you’re swallowing air which can make you feel bloated afterward and sluggish.

It’s also important to limit distractions. If you’re usually having dinner and watching TV it’s easy to get lost in mindless eating because you’re not focused on your meal. Normally, when you’re distracted and eating, you’re not focused on what you’re eating or how much you’re eating. When you limit distractions, you can really get to know your body better and help identify fullness cues better as well.

Verywell: What about hydration? Are there specific types of beverages people should be drinking? 

Naely: It’s so important to drink water but I try to emphasize that instead of chugging water after breaking fast, sip on small amounts of water as long as you can or as long as you’re awake. If you drink a bunch of water usually you will have to urinate frequently afterward and then you’re not keeping yourself hydrated. If you sip slowly, you’re getting hydrated more that way.

Coconut water is a really good natural electrolyte and is high in potassium. If you are still feeling dehydrated even after drinking water or eating foods that are high in water content such as watermelon, cucumbers, zucchini, celery, broths, and yogurt, then I recommend adding an electrolyte supplement like a powder or tablet to your water at that point. Make sure to choose one that’s not too high in added sugars like premade sports drinks.

Verywell: Why is getting good sleep important during this time and how does it affect hunger hormones?

Naely: Sleep affects hormones, especially hunger hormones like ghrelin and leptin, and can also affect melatonin and estrogen. When you don’t get enough sleep, it can also disrupt your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.

Not getting enough sleep can cause you to end up overeating because your hormones aren’t functioning properly. People don’t realize that whenever you’re running on low energy because you have low sleep, your body wants to look for quick sources of energy. So whenever you do eat, it’s going to cause you to keep eating and eating, because it just wants to build itself up for that. But if you know you consistently get good sleep, your hormones—especially your hunger hormones—will be functioning more properly. Whenever you’re running low on sleep you’re probably going to be hungrier and moodier. That’s why it’s really important to get rest or even try to take a nap during the day, that will help a bit too.

Verywell: Lastly, do you have any other tips or recommendations for people who are observing Ramadan (whether it’s their first time or not)? 

Naely: Mainly, I just try to eat balanced meals and still allow myself to eat the foods that I enjoy. I don’t try to restrict myself from my favorite foods. Some people depending on if they work or if they are a student may stay up all night and eat and then they’ll sleep through the day. It can mess with their whole schedule. But for me, I try to make sure I follow a routine. It’s similar to the routine I follow on most days, so not doing anything too different from what I usually do. It’s just that I’m eating later and going to the gym later than I normally do.

My last piece of recommendation, especially for people who are fasting for the first time, is to not be afraid to reach out to somebody who has been doing this. We’re more than likely going to be happy to help or even invite you over for dinner and have you eat with our families. Don’t be scared to reach out to somebody from the community.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.