For Ramadan, More Muslims Shape Diets Around Physical And Mental Health

Jun 10, 2018
Originally published on June 12, 2018 10:18 am

Azka Mahmood wakes up at 4 in the morning for Suhoor, the meal Muslims eat before starting their fast. From the fridge, she grabs the barley porridge that she prepared the night before, and wolfs it down with her husband, Tariq. They offer their prayers, then go back to sleep before waking again to get their children ready for school.

Mahmood's routine is typical of the 4.5 million Muslims in the United States and Canada. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, is an important time around the world for Muslims, who adapt their pace of life to the needs of the month. Businesses and schools shorten their hours, opening up time for people to gather and reflect.

Life in the U.S. continues unabated, but the Ramadan experience for its diverse communities of Muslims varies incredibly upon their work, communities and priorities.

Sarah Zaheer Shah, a family physician in Dallas, chooses to be a pragmatist. She and her husband, Sajid, parents of two children, tend to keep things simple. For Sahoor, Shah buys store-bought parathas (flatbreads) that she will eat with scrambled eggs. For Iftar, the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan, she prepares a colorful fruit salad, followed by a simple home-cooked meal made with chicken curry or ground beef.

"Other times of the year, I try to make things from scratch. But during Ramadan, I rely more on processed foods," she says. While growing up in Pakistan, it was customary to eat a large Iftar, but now Shah is not in favor of going overboard because she finds it only makes her more tired during her fast.

Sarah Mir, who started the blog Flour & Spice out of Toronto, says that during Ramadan you cannot go on as normal, "You have to be very mindful of the food choices. Otherwise, you will be a grouch the whole day!"

A growing number of Muslim food bloggers and dietitians are producing creative content to address the shifting needs of young Muslims such as Shah and Mir who are looking to streamline their routines during Ramadan and stay healthy; mirroring heightened consciousness about nutrition and fitness.

Heifa Odeh, who started the blog Fufu's Kitchen, says her dietary habits are personal: "I struggled with my weight for years. And food was something I had to change about my life." Odeh began to look for ways to make day-to-day Middle Eastern food healthier by incorporating gluten and dairy-free ingredients. She carried this strategy into Ramadan: "I actually first lost weight during Ramadan because of how I changed the way I eat, and wanted to use my blog to share strategies so others could do the same."

Abeer Najjar, a Chicago-based chef and food blogger, finds this talk of health and fitness to be a major shift from the Ramadan of her childhood, which centered around sharing a simple Iftar with your family in the evening and a visit to the neighborhood mosque. This month, Najjar has been hit with a series of ads on social media from food and fitness bloggers framing Ramadan as a time to get healthy. But for her, "Ramadan is a time for me to spend more time on worship, reflection, being mindful and spending time with my family. I don't want to be on my phone all the time." Abeer is also uncomfortable with the growing commercialism of Ramadan. "I think about whether I would be posting to help other Muslims or just to capitalize on Ramadan," she says.

For some dietitians and food bloggers, fasting and wellness go hand in hand. Shahzadi Devje, Toronto-based dietician, food blogger and chair of the Ismaili Nutrition Centre, emphasizes that Ramadan is about discipline and balance. "Ramadan is a time when people easily get carried away with overindulgence after a long day of fasting and tip the balance," she says. Devje works with her clients and readers to suggest small changes in their habits to help keep them energized and hydrated for longer during the fast. For instance, she recommends using chickpea or multi-grain flour to make chapatis instead of white flour, and reducing the consumption of red meat to make way for richly flavored fish and daal (lentil soup). Her biggest message: To focus on spirituality, you need to be feeling your best physically.

Izzah Cheema, founder of the blog Tea for Turmeric, shares Devje's sentiment, and collaborates with dieticians and other food bloggers to promote eating habits to help maximize energy during Ramadan. However, she doesn't like to label traditional foods as unhealthy. "There's great wisdom in our ancestral food," says Cheema. "There's a lot of nutritionists and clean-eating bloggers that say sugar is the devil, fat is the devil. I try to bring a more balanced perspective." So Cheema focuses on South Asian ingredients that are loaded with nutrients, and suggests healthy tweaks to traditional Pakistani recipes.

Amanda Saab, former contestant on television's MasterChef, blogger at Amanda's Plate and founder of the "Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor" supper club, grew up in the vibrant Muslim community of Dearborn, Mich., where her grandmother hosts Iftars for about 50 guests every weekend during Ramadan. So it's no surprise that Saab prioritizes gathering and community during the holy month. While she sometimes takes inspiration from chefs and bloggers focused on wellness, she enjoys sharing hacks for Ramadan that allow Muslims to host more easily while reducing food waste.

"Arab hospitality is so generous," Saab says. "This means making a lot of food, which leads to both overindulgence and waste." She finds both to be counterproductive to the spirit of Ramadan so she tries to lead by example, by promoting Iftar recipes that can easily double as leftovers or menus that don't feature more than one entrée.

For Muslims in cities with much smaller communities, Ramadan may be more intimate, but not any less joyful. Mahmood, who lives in Panama City, Fla., likes to spend time with her children doing different Ramadan activities every day. They decorate the house, make handmade Eid cards or read books that emphasize values such as inclusiveness and kindness.

Mahmood spends Ramadan instilling a sense of Muslim identity in her children, but also remembering her roots. "We don't eat a whole lot of desi [South Asian)] food in the U.S., but Ramadan is a time I make something Pakistani every day," she says. "How can you have Iftar without fruit chaat and samosas?"

Maryam Jillani is a freelance food writer based in Juarez, Mexico. She is founder of the blog Pakistan Eats and was TASTE magazine's first Cook in Residence. You can follow her on Twitter: @pakistaneats.

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