Ramadan and the Practice of Fasting

To continue with my series of discussing local food practices in Egypt I thought I’d next explore Ramadan and the practice of fasting.  For my previous post on the concept of Halal click here.

What is Ramadan?

As someone who was raised Catholic, my early years did not include a lot of exposure to differing religious practices.  The first time I recall hearing the term “Ramadan” was shortly after I had moved to Calgary in 2003.  I distinctly remember that Ramadan was being discussed on the local sports radio station.  There happened to be a player for the Calgary Stampeders football team who was a practicing Muslim.  This player was a star on the team’s defense and because Ramadan would fall in the middle of the season there were questions of the impact it might have on his health/performance.

I’ve since learned that Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Since the Islamic lunar calendar is 354 (or 355) days, when looking at the Gregorian calendar (which is solar-based), it is about 11 days earlier each year. In 2013, Ramadan takes place from July 9 to August 7.  The hallmark characteristic of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Rather than attempt to describe why Muslims adhere to fasting during Ramadan myself, I thought I’d leave that to the good people at www.whatisramadan.com:

“Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of the Islam religion, and one of the main types of Islamic worship. Restraint from everyday enjoyment and curbing wicked intentions and cravings are considered as an act of compliance and obedience to God, as well as amends for sins, faults, and mistakes……During Ramadan, Muslims request forgiveness for sins in the past, pray for direction and assistance in abstaining from everyday troubles, and endeavour to cleanse themselves through self-control and great acts of faith.”

A man raises his hands to pray near the sea at sunset after a day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

A man raises his hands to pray near the sea at sunset after a day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

All adult Muslims are expected to participate in Ramadan.  The only exceptions to this are those who are sick, elderly, menstruating, pregnant, breast-feeding, or travelling.

During Ramadan no food or drink are allowed during daylight hours (this includes water and chewing gum).  Medications and smoking are also abstained from while fasting.  Each day begins before dawn with a pre-fast meal called “suhur”.  After sunset the fasting period ends with a meal called “iftar”.  Between iftar and suhur both snacking and hydrating are encouraged.

Foods associated with Ramadan

The foods eaten by Muslims during Ramadan can be as varied as the people involved.  That said, foods tend to be higher in calories/fat and based around meats (beef/lamb) and chicken.  Today’s dishes are also often a mix of traditional and newer foods.  

A man arranges plates with meals for Iftar (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

A man arranges plates with meals for Iftar (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

In Egypt, some traditional foods eaten at suhur are ful medames (think hummus but with fava beans), yogurt, fried/hard boiled eggs, pita bread, dried fruits and cheese.  Traditional iftar meals often start with dates and water/milk followed by a dinner meal that can include different kinds of vegetable stews, mulukhia (mallow leaf soup), beans, stuffed vegetables, stuffed vine leaves, fatta (a dish made with bread, rice and topped with garlic & vinegar meat soup), grilled/fried chicken or meat and rice.  These foods are generally the same as those that are eaten throughout the rest of the year, although rather than being prepared once or twice per week, during Ramadan they are made daily.

Health implications of fasting

In truth, the Calgary sports media had reason to be concerned about their star football player.  Performance notwithstanding, if someone isn’t consuming fluids while engaging in intense physical activity (particularly in the summer heat), they run the real risk of dehydration, heat stroke and potentially even death.  It stands to reason that any high-end athlete who is practicing fasting during Ramadan should be closely monitored and have their training schedule modified (ie. less intense activities, working-out indoors, etc…) to minimize any of these negative effects.  Fortunately, the majority of Muslims are not elite athletes.  As long as individuals reduce their physical activity during the day and make sure they hydrate between iftar and suhur the risk of dehydration should be minimal.

In terms of other potential health implications, its been noted that weight loss AND weight gain may be an outcome for people during Ramadan.  The idea of weight loss is probably fairly obvious to most people (fewer meals = less calories = weight loss).  While this can be true, since iftar meals follow an extended fast (>12hrs) and are often a social event, individuals may be inclined to overindulge in the higher calorie options (ie. fried foods/desserts) that are available during this time of year.  This combined with a reduction of physical activity can actually lead to weight gain for some individuals.

Ramadan and me

I’m a little disappointed that Ramadan begins and ends before I arrive in Egypt.  It would’ve been interesting to see the day-to-day impact of Ramadam on the Egyptian people.  Will most restaurants be closed during the day?  Will there be noticeably less people out-and-about?  How strict do local Muslims typically adhere to the practice of fasting?  I might just have to make sure I’m around for Ramadan next year to find out!

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Cheap Eats in Egypt

“We all eat.  It would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly” — Anna Thomas

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cooking

My wife forwarded me a newsletter sent to her by her new school the other day.  It was filled with lots of useful information regarding our new life in Egypt, including our upcoming apartment search, safety concerns, dress codes and transportation options.

But, there was one statement regarding food costs that made me cringe:

“In fact, it is so cheap here to eat out that many of us never cook!”

This statement was made to sound as though the possibility of never cooking were some sort of “perk” of living in Egypt, but as a dietitian its difficult to for me to see this as anything but a negative.

It may not be as cheap as in Egypt, but we still eat out a lot.  In the United States 47% of all food dollars are spent consuming foods at restaurants.  I have no doubt that numbers would be similar in Canada.  Eating out has become so commonplace (and culinary skills so eroded) that there was a recent column in the New York Times by mom/blogger KJ Dell’Antonia discussing the “challenge” of preparing a whole week’s worth of meals at home.

And the evidence is mounting – all of this eating out is killing us.

A recent review concluded (perhaps not surprisingly) that eating out was associated with increased caloric and fat intakes, as well as lower intakes of micronutrients, especially vitamin C, calcium and iron (Lachat et al., 2012).  Also, not surprisingly, another review suggested a positive relationship between the consumption of food away from home and weight gain (Bezerra et al., 2012).  Basically people who eat out frequently are more likely to be obese and have poorer diet quality, which can lead to shorter life expectancies.

Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity doc in Ottawa, states that the average patient he sees at his clinic eat 3-4 meals a week outside the home.  In my experience this may be a conservative estimate.  But even if we use Yoni’s figures, that means people are eating out 208 meals/year.  That’s 208 meals that are generally higher calorie, higher fat and lower nutritional quality than something made at home.  You can’t tell me that doesn’t have some impact on our long-term health.  By no means am I suggesting that eating out is the sole contributor to the recent rise in various health issues (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease), however, I do think its fair to say that our increased reliance on getting meals from outside the home has played an important role in this regard.

Now, its not like I’ll be swearing off eating out in Egypt altogether.  In fact I’m sure I’ll eat my fair share of restaurant meals over there – one of the best things about travelling to a new country is experiencing the local food.  

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be foregoing cooking either.  Just because something is cheap, doesn’t mean its worth it. 

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References:

Lachat C, Nago E, Verstaeten R, Roberfroid D, Van Camp J and Kolsteren P.  (2012). Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence.  Obesity Reviews. 12: 329-346.

Bezerra IN, Curioni C and Sichieri R.  (2012).  Association between eating out of home and body weight.  Nutrition Reviews. 70(2): 65-79

Halal for dummies

Since I will be moving to Egypt soon, I thought it might be a good idea to get familiar with some of the local food practices.

Perhaps one of the most obvious food-related differences between North America and the Middle East is the concept of “halal”, which is practiced by most Muslims.  With 90% of the Egyptian population being Muslim, the majority of the food available in Egypt will be considered halal.  But what exactly does this mean?

halal-kitchen_l

I’ll begin with a few basic definitions.  Halal literally means “lawful” or “permissible” and refers to food that can be eaten by followers of Islam.  Foods that are not halal are considered haram, or not permissible for Muslims.  There are also foods that lie somewhere in between.  These foods are called mashbooh and are questionable or suspect.

So what is it that makes a food “halal”?

The guidelines for halal are specified in the dietary laws in the Quran.  These guidelines refer to both the types of foods suitable for consumption and how that food is prepared.

According to ISNA Canada, “all foods are considered halal, except the following”:

  1. Swine/pork and its by-products or any derivatives
  2. Animals not slaughtered according to the Islamic requirements
  3. Alcohol and intoxicants
  4. Carnivorous animals, birds of prey
  5. Blood and blood by-products
  6. Foods contaminated with any of the above products
  7. Food products and ingredients such as enzymes, gelatin, emulsifier, are considered mashbooh and must be verified before its application

Most of the above is fairly straightforward – no pork, alcohol,…. blood sausage, tigers, eagles, etc…..OR any food prepared/contaminated with the by-products of any of these items.  For example, vanilla extract is not halal because alcohol is used in its processing.  We were actually told by my wife’s school to bring some of this with us if we enjoy baking, because its virtually impossible to find in Cairo.

As for the details regarding the slaughtering of animals, in order for Islamic requirements to be met 1) the name of God (Allah) must be pronounced at the time of killing and 2) a sharp blade is used such that “a quick cut to sever the veins and arteries of the neck of the animal, without cutting the nervous system or spinal cord can be made”.  This second item helps to ensure that the animal will fully bleed out, thus removing any “harmful” components of the blood.  Note that even foods that are typically considered halal (ie. beef) would be considered haram if they are not slaughtered according to these guidelines.

In Canada there is a formal process for certifying food producers to ensure they are following these practices.  I expect that there are similar procedures in Egypt.

What does this mean for me?

The concept of halal will likely have very little impact on my day-to-day life in Egypt.  I’ve read that alcohol is still readily available, albeit maybe a bit more challenging to obtain than in Canada.  If its anything like Turkey, another mostly Muslim country that my wife and I visited in December, it won’t be difficult at all.  

The biggest thing I’ll likely notice will be the “no pork” rule.  Unlike alcohol, it sounds like pork will be extremely difficult to get over there.  This could end up being a good thing (no hot dogs), or a bad thing (no hot dogs!).

I hope to follow up on this topic after we move to see if my expectations were correct!

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Where The Fruit Is

Go-out-on-a-Limb

“Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.” — Samuel Johnson

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A few weeks ago when I began telling our family & friends of our plans to move to Egypt, it became pretty clear that people fell into one of two categories. First, there were those who were super-excited for us.  Many had wished they had done something like this themselves before life got too busy.  Others were just excited that we’d be able to experience such an amazing adventure.

The second group was much more cautious.  “You realize things are pretty unsettled/unsafe over there right now, right?”….”What kind of security will your wife’s school have for you?”….”Make sure you don’t get yourselves injured/kidnapped/ killed/etc..”  In fairness, this last one was usually made in jest, but I still think it speaks to people’s fears.

And the thing is, these concerns are valid.  There are issues in Egypt right now. Since the 2011 revolution to oust former President/Dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has seen regular demonstrations (some turning violent), increased crime rates and economic turmoil.  We’re not exactly walking into an ideal situation.

Yet, I don’t for one moment second-guess our decision to move to Egypt.  Here’s why:

Life is about evaluating and managing risk, not avoiding it all-together.

I don’t want to be the type of person who is so afraid to take a risk that I miss out on what could be a life changing experience.  I know people that refuse to go hiking in the mountains because they’re afraid of encountering a bear.  For me, its well worth the risk.  If I wanted to eliminate all risks in my life I would never leave my house.  I certainly would never have climbed Mount Rainier, trekked amongst Incan ruins in Peru or studied Spanish in Guatemala.

I think what is sometimes lost on people is that minimizing risk is something we all do everyday.  Gotta drive to work? Put on your seatbelt.  Work in a laboratory?  Make sure you wear your lab coat and eye protection.  Going for a bike ride?  Don’t forget your helmet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a daredevil.  I always take reasonable precautions before engaging in any potentially dangerous activity.  When climbing, before I ever contemplated travelling on a glacier without a guide, I took a mountaineering course. Egypt will be the same.  Educating ourselves ahead of time will be important.  As will avoiding legitimately unsafe areas and being respectful to local practices/traditions.

out-on-a-limb

Its also important to be honest in your evaluation of the true risk involved in anything you do.  Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freaknomics, discussed people’s ability (or lack thereof) to accurately evaluate risk here.  He says “we tend be scared of big, noisy, anomalous events”, but tend to overlook more common, appearingly safe activities.  In other words, when we see news reports of violent demonstrations in Tahrir Square we translate this to mean that this is what all Cairo citizens are encountering on a daily basis.  Perhaps a few are, but there is no way this can be representative of the daily lives of everyone in the city.  Statisically speaking you have a much greater chance at being injured/dying while driving to work than being the victim of violence in Egypt, but most would never consider foregoing their vehicles.

Obviously, everyone has their own comfort level in terms of risk, but I encourage you to be honest in the evaluation of the true danger of any activity or opportunity that comes your way.  Don’t miss out on a potential life enhancing opportunity due to an irrational fear.

As Mark Twain once said, “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”

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Overconsumption…. and I don’t mean food.

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.” — Tyler Durden, Fight Club

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The purge has begun. When we move to Cairo later this summer we’ll only be able to bring our luggage with us – that’s 2 bags (+ a carry-on) each. Not a lot. This, combined with our limited storage situation in Edmonton, has really forced us to evaluate the importance of our possessions. What should we keep, sell, give away or just throw out?

I quickly realized into this process that we’ve got a lot of crap. To be honest, this surprised me a bit. I’ve never thought of myself as being someone who has a lot of stuff, yet these past couple of weekends spent organizing seem to demonstrate otherwise. And so much stuff we have no use for. Seriously, why did we buy a cheese board set? It’s literally been collecting dust on our shelf for years. It was probably in the off-chance we’d use it when hosting friends/family (which we rarely do), because having one would somehow enhance the experience of eating cheese & crackers? Anyways, it seemed to make sense at the time. Now, not so much.

overconsumption

And of course, it’s not just us. Everybody does it.  The examples are endless.

I remember shortly after we moved to Edmonton as part of my Dietetic Internship I had to do a 4-week rotation in a small community outside the city. As my wife typically takes our car to work (also outside the city), she was forced to coordinate a carpool for a month. Several of her colleagues could not understand why we wouldn’t just buy a second vehicle.

This mindset is pervasive. If you want it, buy it. It doesn’t matter if the want/need is fleeting. You might as well buy it. And it often doesn’t even matter if you can afford it. Just buy it.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Westernized countries (North America, Europe, Japan & Australia) are the worst offenders when it comes to this type of philosophy. We make up 20% of the world’s population, yet consume more than 80% of the world’s resources. Why do we purchase things we so obviously don’t need (or only need for an extremely short period of time)?

Obviously a big part of this is because we can.  We tend to have relatively high amounts of disposable income.  But its more than that.  Look at the environment we live in today.  The average American is said to be exposed to 3000 marketing messages everyday.  All trying to convince you that their product is critical to your success/happiness.  In 2011, there were 36 corporations that spent at least 1 billion USD on advertising.  That is an insane amount of money!  But they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t producing a return.

I can say that I will be making a conscious effort to reduce our frivolous purchases while in Egypt (and beyond that).  Before buying something, I’m going to truly evaluate its importance to our lives.  Part of it is that I hate wasting money, but the other part of it is that I just hate wasting.  And at the end of the day, its the experiences that matter, not the stuff.

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