If you're one of those people who not only does not lose weight in Ramadan, but goes even further and gains weight this article is for you!
Rehan Jalali on working out and eating healthy, while fasting:
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is how can I workout and eat properly while I am fasting? Most people see the blessed month of Ramadan as a time when they will surely lose strength and or muscle mass and some people think they can only "maintain" during this month. This cannot be further from the truth. In fact, if you use some of the strategies I am about to share with you, you can make some of your best gains during this month! It's all about maximizing nutrient uptake, maintaining proper hydration, and modifying key fat burning/muscle building hormones in your favor during this month.
First of all, let's look at what happens to your body during Ramadan. While you are fasting, obviously you become more dehydrated at rest--but actually less than if you had exercised aerobically for over an hour (so exercise causes greater dehydration for that time period versus fasting). Your main metabolic fuel source for bodily function during fasting is mainly fat, which is a good thing. There is a great advantage fasting when the days are shorter as more meals can be eaten during the night. So the goals during Ramadan are to maximize metabolism (even though your metabolism will slow down due to less frequent meals), preserve and enhance as much lean muscle mass as possible (which will inherently increase metabolic rate and allow you to burn more calories at rest), and maximize your workout (both cardio and weight training). During Ramadan, depending on your goals, I really recommend that you limit cardio to 2 days a week at the most. This is again to preserve as much lean muscle tissue as possible. There is actually research showing the health benefits of fasting. It is truly a physical purification.
Ok, enough of the background, let's get to the meat of it! I am going to set the record straight here. The best time to do a weight training workout is NOT while fasting. This can create way too much muscle breakdown and cause a significant rise in the catabolic hormone cortisol. Training while in a state of dehydration can decrease strength significantly. In fact, research indicates that dehydrating a muscle by as little as 3% can cause a 12% loss in strength. Training while you are fasting can actually be more detrimental than beneficial! The best time to weight train during Ramadan is after Taraweh prayers at night. This will insure that you will have several meals and plenty of water in your system before going to the gym. This will also allow you to consume your all-important post workout meal or shake which is essential to muscle growth and even fat loss. If this is too late then the next best time to weight train is about 1 hour after Iftar before taraweh prayer. The best time to do cardio work for maximum fat loss is before suhur—yep that's the truth. Of course, most people I know will not want to get up at around 3: 30 AM and do cardio! If you CAN pull this off then the best thing to do is get up and drink plenty of water with a cup of coffee or green tea, wait 30 minutes and perform 30-45 minutes of moderate intensity cardio work like a brisk walk on a treadmill. If this is out of the question for you, then the next best time to do cardio is approximately 30-45 minutes after a "light" iftar (I will define this shortly).
So now you know when to train, it's time to learn what to eat and drink (think water, water, and more water!).
Suhur meal (morning/pre-dawn)
For suhur, it is imperative to drink plenty of water, eat a good blend of protein, carbohydrates, and essential fat—that's right "good fats" have many fat burning and muscle building properties and their importance is even greater during Ramadan. Some good "suhur" foods include:
Egg whites (1 yolk)
Cream of wheat
Raw, Dark Honey
Raisins or dates
Fibrous vegetables –This will help increase the feeling of fullness as well.
All natural peanut butter
Flax seed oil
Olive oil – preferably extra virgin (which means it's cold processed and the essential fatty acids are preserved)
Plenty of water
It is important to take a solid Multi-Vitamin/ multi-mineral supplement with suhur as well to make sure daily minimum requirements of key nutrients are met. One good one is Opti-Pack by Super Nutrition. Taking extra vitamin C and vitamin E can also be helpful. It is very important to watch your sodium intake at this time as high sodium can cause greater dehydration plus increase thirst during the day—not good for fasters. Avoid high sodium foods like soups, sauces, condiments, gravies, high sodium bread products, and canned meats.
This is a key time for rehydration. The wisdom in Islam is never ending. We break our fast with dates and water but if you investigate this nutritionally, you will see that dates are very unique in their nutrient content. They contain very high levels of potassium, a key re-hydration mineral and a special carbohydrate blend that enhance hydration above and beyond water alone. So basically when you eat a date and water for iftar your body gets hydrated again much faster than with water alone (this is a complex topic but I don't want to bore you with the details—You can think of dates and water as a very advanced form of Gatorade?). You should also eat some quality protein at this time as well. I recommend three dates and a meal replacement protein powder like ZI Diet MRP from VPX Sports, Lean Body by Labrada, or Myoplex from EAS. Of course, drink plenty of water. Then 1- 1.5 hours later have a food meal (or follow the schedule above for cardio). Then during taraweh, depending if you pray 8 or 20 rakahs, have a protein bar in the middle (not while you are praying of course!) or have another small protein and complex carbohydrate meal after the 8 rakahs—drink plenty of water if you have a protein bar. Then go train about 30-45 minutes after eating the bar. After the workout, have another nutrition shake (as mentioned a few lines ago) with plenty of water. Eating small meals at night can trick your body into speeding up metabolic rate (not to mention increase nutrient absorption and stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels). Your body loves homeostasis and wants to maintain a certain balance—you literally have to shock it constantly to lose fat and gain muscle over the long run! There is so much wisdom in "Eat and drink but not to excess" and we should try and follow that especially during Ramadan.
SAMPLE Ramadan MEAL PLAN for fat loss and muscle gain
(*This plan is for a 170 lb male, please adjust amounts for body weight)
Eat 6-8 egg whites (one yolk)
One bowl of plain oatmeal w/ cinnamon, raisins and a banana
1 teaspoon all-natural peanut butter or olive oil or flax seed oil
Plenty of water (16-24 oz.)
Opti-pack by Super Nutrition (one pack) –multi-vitamin/mineral
Iftar (the evening opening of the fast):
Three Dates and a Nutrition Shake (ZI Diet MRP from VPX Sports, Lean Body by Labrada, or Myoplex from EAS)
Plenty of water
For cardio wokouts --Do cardio 45 minutes after this meal for 30-45 minutes at a moderate pace or do a sprint workout if you have less time and then have the next meal before taraweh. (Have a cup of green tea with Iftar on cardio days)
For weight training days: Eat another food meal before Taraweh like chicken breast (or baked salmon), brown rice and some veggies OR
Baked Fish (Salmon, Tuna, Orange Roughy, or Mahi mahi), sweet potato, and a garden salad or some steamed vegetables.
Drink plenty of water during taraweh--Go to the gym after taraweh. (If you pray 20 rakahs, then have a protein bar in the middle of taraweh). Drink plenty of water during the workout and you can even have Powerade™ or a sports drink during the workout.
After the workout, have another Nutrition Shake --lots of water of course. Then sleep 45 minutes later or stay up all night eating and working like I do!
Following these simple workout and nutrition tips can really help you make great gains during this blessed month. May God help give us patience and strength in this month and throughout the year and make us strong mentally, internally, spiritually, and physically!