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Intentions for a Healthy Ramadan

June 15th, 2015 5 comments

Ramadan

Ramadan is coming up fast. I’ve observed this month of fasting for the past two decades. As always, I anticipate the month with equal measures of joy and dread.

Yes, joy. I look forward to our nightly iftars, leisurely family meals where everyone is in a good mood, the food tastes twice as good, and my teenage kids linger at the table for more than five minutes. I also appreciate special gatherings with friends, as well as the time set aside for self-discipline and devotion.

Meanwhile, it’s not the fasting that I dread, but the decline in physical activity, the over-eating, the excess of desserts, the loss in fitness level, and the inevitable weight gain.

I admit, my eating habits generally sink to lower and lower levels as the weeks progress—the wrong foods and too much of them. Even worse, I typically stop exercising while fasting and become a Ramadan couch potato.

Yes, I realize this defeats the point of point of the holy month. What’s more, I used to be able to bounce back from this way of observing Ramadan, but no more. Besides, it just feels wrong. Ramadan is meant to be spiritual and self-reflective—not lazy and over-indulgent.

So, in light of all this, for the past several years I’ve been striving for a healthier Ramadan. Here are my intentions for this year:

Change up Habits

Since the whole schedule is turned upside down, Ramadan is a good time to discard bad habits. For example, many people try to give up smoking. As for me, I’m intending to make more vegetarian meals and eat as a pescetarian—opting for seafood over meat and poultry. As I plan iftars, I remind myself every evening need not be a feast. We can enjoy simple meals like mujaddara.

Quality over Quantity

Like many in this region, we start each iftar with lentil soup, which is a great way to break a day’s fast. However, it’s easy to slide downhill after that into a glut of fried foods and carbs galore. Instead, I intend to serve more vegetables, including in a big salad and my secret weapon: the raw veggie platter. When I have that Ramadan-urge to just graze, I’ll reach for raw veggies—snap peas, bell peppers strips, cucumbers, carrot sticks—the crunchier the better.

Count my Dates

Dates are the special food of Ramadan. Everyone I know breaks their fast with dates. At our house, we keep snacking on them into the evening. If that’s not enough, we eat desserts made from dates and more dates at suhour.

Despite the revered role of dates during Ramadan, they are sugar-loaded and calorie-dense. Therefore, this year I’m avoiding the date free-for-all. Two or three dates at iftar are enough.

Dodging Dessert

I used to promise my three fasting children a homemade dessert every night of Ramadan as a “reward” for their efforts. What a terrible habit! It’s bad for many reasons, including the fact that sugar is addictive, and, according to some sources, added sugar causes as much damage as alcohol and fat.

And yet….

It’s not Ramadan without traditional treats like qatief. It’s impossible to avoid desserts during Ramadan, and some treats I wouldn’t want to miss. However, I plan to indulge selectively. At home, I intend to prepare some fruit-based options, such as apple pie, blueberry crisp and fruit smoothies.

Keep Moving

This is going to be tough. There’s a big benefit to having a day job during Ramadan. When I was teaching English, my work ensured that I had a regular routine and moved around during Ramadan.

For the past two years, I’ve had my pedometer and set a daily Ramadan intention of 8,000 steps. It’s worked well, so I’m aiming for that again. However, I won’t be walking outdoors while fasting, as the temperature in Dubai will be soaring. Instead, I’ll stroll in the mall and do some gentle yoga. Some Muslims say their yoga practice is actually better when they’re fasting.

Evenings are a different story. Even though it’ll be hot and humid, the dog still needs to be walked. And I’m planning on midnight walks on the beach with my family, as the cool mist provides a small reprieve.

The malls in Dubai are a great place to walk in the evenings. Open until 1:00am during Ramadan, the malls are filled with Ramadan decorations and window displays, as well as a bustle of people. Of course, I intend to walk right past the pastry shops…

Drink Six Tall Ones

People ask how I stay hydrated when I can only eat and drink after the sun goes down. Actually, at our house we consume more water during Ramadan than other months. I commit myself to drinking six glasses of water after the sun goes down.

This is how I do it: I break my fast with a glass of water, and I drink another during iftar. I drink two more glasses during the evening. I drink a fifth glass before I go to bed. I drink another glass when I get up at 3:30am for suhour. It takes effort, but I feel so much better this way.

Rise and Shine with Suhoor

I don’t understand how people can skip suhour, the pre-dawn meal. It’s an important tradition at our house. I used to stuff myself at suhour out of fear of starving, and I would even have dessert. Those days are over.

Now I opt for a fiber-rich meal that will stay with me. My suhour of choice is steel-cut oats (cooked in advance) with some dried fruit and walnuts.

When my husband is charge, we’ll have hummus, foul or fatayer from the Lebanese bakery down the street (which has a queue at 3:00am).

Avoid Buffets like the Plague

I say this every year. Then I read the local magazines featuring “Best Ramadan Iftars.” Then we get an invite to some over-the-top buffet in a hotel. Next thing you know, there we are, heaping our plates. And then—the inevitable regret.

These buffets are wrought with problems: they are wasteful; they are against the spirit of Ramadan; they encourage over-eating, and we completely forget the concept of remembering those less fortunate.

And yet, if I do find myself at a buffet, I intend to follow the “dieter’s rule” of filling half my plate with vegetables, such as those delicious Arab mezza salads.

Ah, Sleep

In case you didn’t know, sleep is the secret key to wellness. Scientists are still discovering all the hidden benefits of sleep. Without enough, we are grumpy, less focused, forgetful, unmotivated, and more apt to get sick. What’s more, lack of sleep combined with fasting is a double-whammy to our well-being.

My intention this year is not to stay awake all night until suhour. So slovenly! It creates a jetlag-like stupor. Instead, I’m planning to keep regular hours—at least until the final week.

Easing Back

Regarding weight gain, I discovered last year that the real danger zone is actually the week after Ramadan. You know that holiday week of decadent breakfasts, non-stop ma’amoul, and big Eid lunches? Well, this is the time to be careful. After a month of fasting, our bodies have adjusted by slowing down and conserving energy. The week after Ramadan is a time to eat light and ease back into our regular meals.

* * *

Ramadan is a challenging month—spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always count down the days until it’s over. Sometimes I secretly wish for a “holy week” of fasting instead of a holy month. And yet, when the month is over, I feel a touch of remorse. I miss those family iftars when we come together in a meaningful way.

This year, I’m intending to have both: the spirit and joy of Ramadan, as well as physical wellness.

Question: How do you stay healthy during Ramadan? 

Make the Most of Your Expat Experience

October 3rd, 2013 20 comments

Sampling everything as an expatAs an expat who has lived in Dubai for the past twelve years, I was recently asked to serve on a panel addressing the challenges for expat families living in the Middle East.

Because my family’s overseas move took place so long ago, I could only vaguely remember how I coped with the transition. I do remember being quite homesick and a bit depressed in the beginning. However, the friends I made and the groups I joined helped me survive and eventually thrive in my new city.

To help get some more ideas on successful expat living, I polled a group of my friends in Dubai for their top tips. Some of these women have been living as expats for decades; others are in the midst of making the transition for the first time. They offered some insights that hadn’t occurred to me. After I gathered their suggestions, I wished someone had told me these strategies when I first landed in Dubai twelve years ago. 

  •  Stay in the present. Don’t waste your time longing for your past life “back home” or daydreaming about your next posting or next visit home. Instead, cherish and enjoy every moment that you have today—in whatever city or country that may be.
  • Make your new house your home. Take your time choosing a new home. Don’t be rushed. When you move in, unpack quickly. Decorate and personalize your home as though you will live there forever. Expats who don’t take time to set up their new dwelling often feel stuck in limbo.
  • Meet people and make friends as soon as possible. I always tell newcomers to join a group and make connections right away. Don’t wait until you are “settled” to start making friends. You can begin to make contacts with expat groups even before you arrive. It’s not enough just to make friends with people of the same nationality or from your workplace. Branch out! Find people with common interests, be it bicycling, charity, art or photography. Join a faith community, meet your neighbors or become a volunteer.
  • Create a community for yourself. One challenge of expat life is leaving our family and friends behind. New expats often move to a foreign city without knowing a soul. It takes time, but it’s important to create a community—new friends to share holidays with or to turn to during difficult times. And because our fellow expats eventually move away, we need to keep adding to our circle.
  • Stay positive. Make your overseas move with the attitude that you will succeed. Focus on the positive and the exciting aspects of your new place of residence, not just on what is missing. Hang out with people who embrace the expat experience. Avoid those who just want to complain or criticize the new place.
  • Dive deeply into the new culture. I have heard expats complain that Dubai has “no culture.” I think these people expect the local culture to be served up to them on a gold platter. It requires more effort than that—a lot more. In Dubai, start by taking a tour of a mosque or join in a cultural breakfast. Take a course in learning Arabic or take an Arabian food tour. Read books about your new country. Explore places that make you a little uncomfortable—be it a hole-in-the-wall eatery, a fruit and vegetable souk or a neighborhood where no one looks like you.
  • Experience as much as possible. Be open to what is new. Read guides and local magazines to find out what to see and do in your new city. Don’t wait until you have houseguests or you are leaving to start exploring. The most exciting and memorable experiences are outside your comfort zone.
  • At work, be flexible and willing to adapt. Avoid continually comparing your new workplace with your last. Bring lots of patience and be open to new ways. Those who thrive in an international work setting are those who tolerate differences and avoid stereotyping based on nationality.
  • Learn how to stay safe. As soon as you arrive, find out the emergency phone numbers for your new city. Figure out how to get to the clinic and emergency room. In addition to a GPS, get a street atlas to help you get oriented. Learn how to keep yourself, your home and your family safe in this new setting. Not sure how to find out those things? That’s what all those new friends are for.
  • Always remember you are a guest. Read up on the local culture, know what is expected of you, and act accordingly. Dress and behave respectfully.
  • Take advantage of travel opportunities. The Middle East is truly at the crossroads. It’s possible to do short trips in all directions and experience endless destinations and cultures. Even if you can only scrape together one trip per year, you can see much of the world this way.
  • Keep in touch with the best of “Back Home.” Expat life is exciting and challenging because of all the unexpected lifestyle changes. Stay grounded with some carefully selected traditions and customs from your home country. For example, at my house, no matter how busy we are, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday each year with a traditional meal.
  • Live as though you’ll be here forever—but also be ready to pick up and go. Oh, the paradox of expat living. Create a life for yourself in this new place, but live each day, week, month, year in your expat home as if it were your last—because it could be. This way, you’ll have no regrets.

Eid Mubarak!

August 7th, 2013 4 comments

Eid Mubarak

Wishing my friends and followers all the blessings of Eid.