This month of fasting is also, ironically, the best time for foodies. Watch out for what you eat, how much and when, caution experts.

A typical plate of haleem consists of pounded meat, wheat, barley, lentils, ghee, ginger-garlic, an assortment of spices and dry fruits. None of these ingredients are unhealthy. But cook them all together and you have a rich delicacy, a plateful of which can pack in 600 to 800 calories. Who wants to count calories or watch portion sizes when eateries all over the city come alive late evening offering haleem, biryani, kebabs and sweet meats? For many of us, it’s nothing less than a ritual to make a few trips to Old City and savour Ramzan delicacies.

Dig into a plate of haleem late into the night, when your metabolism is slow, and follow it up with mutton or chicken biryani, kebabs and desserts and you are bound to feel lethargic the following day and gain weight the following month.

Not wanting to fall into this trap of mindless feasting that follows prolonged hours of fasting, physicians and dieticians are now being consulted by those eager to learn dos and don’ts of fasting. A chaotic meal plan affects your sugar levels, say dieticians. “The idea of fasting, across different faiths, is to bring in discipline and urge us to look beyond food,” says consultant nutritionist Esther Sathiaraj.

Educationist Anjum Babukhan explains the spirit of Ramzan: “While we abstain from physical nourishment during fasting, we are to seek spiritual nourishment.” She explains that the community does this by spending more time in prayer, asking for forgiveness and performing charity. “Empathy for those less fortunate is felt when we feel the hunger and thirst during our fast. This makes us more charitable and we are obligated to give our zakat (alms) away to the poor,” she adds.

Besides spiritual benefits, Anjum outlines the physiological benefits of fasting: “The air is energising when you wake up before dawn for ‘suhoor’. Our five daily prayers (namaz or salat) are a spiritual exercise for the mind, body and spirit.”

Take Ramzan as an opportunity to detox and knock off excess pounds, says fitness trainer Faiyaz Ali. The widely accepted practice is to break the fast with a glass of water and dates. Water counters dehydration and dates, naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, give the body a burst of energy.

Dinner or ‘iftar’, consumed an hour or two after breaking the fast, is crucial. “Let it be your regular dinner — rice/phulkas, dal/chicken curry, vegetables and yoghurt. The fact that you’ve fasted for a number of hours is no reason to overeat,” says Esther.

Physicians, dieticians and fitness trainers advice against late night binging on haleem, biryani, deep-fried kebabs and sweets. “The metabolism of athletes slows down after 5 p.m. and for normal individuals, this happens earlier. If you must indulge, do it once a week,” says Faiyaz.

College students like Syeda Naina Husain find motivation to eat right by connecting with friends on social networking forums and mobile messenger services. “We exchange recipes and photographs of our meal. We follow a systematic meal plan,” says Naina, who studies at Villa Marie. Her morning ‘seher’ consists of fruits, dahi and a mix of complex carbohydrates. “Our sugar levels are down and we feel dehydrated during the day. Having a heavy meal soon after can have an adverse effect. Our dinner is rice, vegetables, chicken or dal. I avoid fried food. My mom has replaced fried snacks with baked ones. Baked samosas or corn and vegetable toast are some options,” says Naina.

Make your own rules

A few weeks down the line, the month of Shravan will see fasts of a different kind, which vary according to regions and practices followed over generations. “There are no rules. Some fast on Mondays while others fast only on certain religious days,” says homemaker Manju Misra.

Some observe fasts with an intake of milk/buttermilk and fruits at regular intervals and end the day with porridge/khichdi made of non-cereals such as sabudana; others have no qualms eating through the day as long as the meals do not include rice and wheat. Such fasts include sabudana vadas, pooris, papads and khichdis.

“For those who have medical conditions like diabetes, doctors advice fruit and milk/buttermilk. Some fasts allow you to have food prepared from singhare ki atta (water chestnut flour) or kuttu ka atta (buckwheat flour). In certain cases, the ‘fasting’ food turns out to be heavier than regular meals. For instance, a school of thought replaces oil with ghee in ‘fasting’ food,” Misra explains.

Whichever method of fast you choose to follow, remember that a proper meal plan will help prevent the fast from becoming counter productive.

Dos and Don’ts

Nutritionist Esther Sathiaraj gives these broad guidelines for fasting during Ramzan and Shravan:

l Include fruits and vegetables in the pre-dawn meal along with yoghurt and complex carbohydrates. Avoid eating in excess.

l Break the fast with dates, fruits and water.

l Keep your dinner simple. Limit haleem and biryani to once or twice a week. Choose homemade non-fried desserts. Watch out for portion sizes.

l While fasting during the month of Shravan, include fruits and milk/buttermilk in your diet and end the day with a regular meal — two or three phulkas with dal, vegetables and yoghurt or sabudana khichdi.

l Sabudana pooris, vadas and kheer are high in calories.

l Stay physically active if you’re fasting only for a day.

Can you workout?

Fitness trainer Faiyaz Ali recommends moderate workouts of short durations during Ramzan. “I would suggest cardio and circuit training on alternate days. It’s best to workout around 5 p.m. before you break the fast. Do not go overboard since the body is already dehydrated,” he advices.